What Seinfeld can teach us about science

When Jerry Seinfeld starts his UK tour, listen out for a science joke. From early on in his TV career, the comedian poked fun at science. In his 1981 HBO debut, he said of weather forecasts: “And then my favourite part, the satellite photo. This is really helpful. A photograph of the Earth from 10,000 miles away. Can you tell if you should take a sweater or not from that shot?”

His eponymous 90s sitcom is also packed with nuanced references to science, with the storylines of some of the most famous episodes centred on it: George Costanza pretends to be a scientist in The Marine Biologist, while in The Abstinence he becomes a boffin after swearing off sex. In The Non-Fat Yogurt, Kramer has a romantic fling in a lab and inadvertently spoils an experiment testing whether the frozen snack is as healthy as it sounds.

Academics have written volumes about the sociology and philosophy of Seinfeld, but the role of science has been left relatively unexplored. In an attempt to redress this, I have recently published a peer-reviewed paper on the subject in the Journal of Science and Popular Culture.

Researchers have brought science and Seinfeld together in other ways: in 2014, mathematicians from the University of Vermont quantified the sitcom’s happiest characters and seasons (Kramer and season 5 respectively). In 2017, Seinfeld fan and freelance scientific editor John McCool exposed the murky practices of a predatory journal – one that offers publication without proper peer review in exchange for payment. The journal accepted a paper he submitted under the name of Dr Martin van Nostrand, a pseudonym used by Kramer when impersonating a doctor, on the topic of uromycitisis – a fake medical condition invented by Seinfeld. And a popular US dermatologist and a TV star calls herself Dr Pimple Popper, inspired by the derogatory name Jerry uses for a doctor he’s dating.

Some viewers have gone to great lengths to find out whether the science in Seinfeld stands up. The Film Theorists YouTube channel examined whether it’s really possible to die from exposure to toxic glue on old envelopes, as George’s fiancée Susan did in the series (reassuringly, they say, it’s not). And what about Elaine failing a drug test after eating a poppy seed bagel? This was exactly what happened to one Pennsylvania mother, whose baby was taken away by welfare authorities until the mistake was cleared up.

A lot of the science in Seinfeld comes from Jerry’s standup acts within the show. “Somebody, I assume, genetically engineered these ponies,” he says in The Pony Remark. “Do you think they can make them any size? I mean, could they make them, like, the size of a quarter, if they wanted? That would be fun for Monopoly, though, wouldn’t it?” The suggestion is absurd, but in a case of life imitating fiction, scientists are now using gene editing to create miniature animals, such as micro pigs, to sell as pets.

In the opening standup scene of The Mango, Jerry says: “How about that seedless watermelon? What an invention, scientists are working on this. You know, other scientists devote their lives to fighting cancer, Aids, heart disease. These guys are going: ‘No, I’m focusing on melon. Oh sure, thousands of people are dying needlessly. But this [makes spitting noise], that’s gotta stop.’” While the diseases Jerry mentioned still haven’t been cured, scientists today are still engaged in the quest to engineer seedless fruits, including tomatoes.

Jerry Seinfeld at a standup performance
Jerry Seinfeld at a standup performance Photograph: Netflix

A lot of Seinfeld’s standup skits show how some scientific ideas had become common knowledge. Seinfeld casually references Biosphere, Dian Fossey, and tungsten or wolfram, and breaks with the TV cliche of scientists as socially awkward singletons. Jerry dates a political scientist, Kramer falls for an FDA chemist, and George gets a date by pretending to be a marine biologist.

At the same time, the show makes us laugh at misconceptions about science, like Kramer’s theory that the government has created a pig-man, that there’s such a thing as “quoning” or that fat molecules in frozen yoghurt change when it melts.

In The Abstinence, lack of sex turns George into an intellectual who would rather talk about science than his career with the Yankees. He ventures on to the baseball field to teach Major League players how to improve their game: “Hitting is not about muscle. It’s simple physics. Calculate the velocity, v, in relation to the trajectory, t, in which g, gravity, of course, remains a constant.” He then hits a home run and says: “It’s not complicated.”

George was ahead of his time; data analysis and sports science have become a bigger part of sport than ever before.

Ultimately, science is also George’s undoing. He reverts to his former stupid self after having sex with a Portuguese waitress. “I calculated my odds of ever getting together with a Portuguese waitress,” he says. “Mathematically, I had to do it, Jerry.”

Whether the science in Seinfeld works is a mixed bag. There’s no evidence that abstinence can make you smarter; in fact, the opposite may be true. But if you were wondering about the science behind shrinkage? That one stands up.