Cartoon Network's Rick and Morty is science fiction - a little more 'fiction' than 'science', but what if you could replicate some of Rick's scientific inventions while keeping it as looney as the show?
Well, they've found the person to do it: Former Newsarama editor-turned-science teacher Matt Brady. He is the author of the recently-released The Science of Rick and Morty from Atria Books (and Blink Publishing in the United Kingdom).
Marrying his two passions - genre fiction and real-life science, The Science of Rick and Morty has Brady delving into the logistics of intergalactic travel, cloning your grandchildren, and even turning himself into a pickle.
Brady spoke with Newsarama about his new release, as well as the other website he started after leaving Newsarama.
Newsarama: Matt, you've had an unusual path back here to Newsarama. Can you fill people in on what you've been up to (teaching science) and how you ended up writing The Science of Rick and Morty?
Matt Brady: Sure - so I guess it’s been about 11 years since I left Newsarama and started teaching. When I started teaching, I was kind of desperate for a way to get my students interested and engaged in what we were doing in class, so I brought pop culture into my classroom. Comics, movies, television, videogames - it didn’t matter, as long as it had science...or “quasi” science...or sciency enough. This was right around the time that the Marvel movies were starting up in a big way, and within a few years, DC was lighting up the CW.
Along with comics, and any number of video games, I had my hands full of pop culture that I could use as science examples, or that my students could figure out the science of, or,occasionally, hold up as examples of things that wanted to be science, but were so, so not science.
In doing all of that, my wife (also a science teacher, and formerly known as “Mrs. Newsarama"), started talking at science education conventions as well as comic cons about using pop culture and comics in the STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) classroom. That was a lot of fun - I got back to cons again and was able to catch up with a lot of old friends who welcomed me back like I had never left.
Long story longer, my wife and I started up TheScienceOf.org - a site where we use what we do in our classrooms to help other science teachers figure out ways to use pop culture in their classes, as well as a place where I could write about science and pop culture meeting. My output there isn’t as much as it was back in the Newsarama days, but I had written two articles about some Rick and Morty science - a piece about cockroach brains from Pickle Rick and Dwarf Terrace-9 - the “Tiny Earth” from The Wedding Squanchers.
One day, literally, out of the blue...or gray...or whatever color e-mail is, I got a letter from an editor at Blink Media in the UK saying that he really liked the articles on Rick and Morty, really dug what I was doing, and oh, yeah...would I like to write about about the science of Rick and Morty.
A bit of back and forth - which involved an embarrassing amount of me saying, “Are you sure?” followed by six months of writing, one and a half months of editing, and here we are. Well, kinda - the book was published in the UK in April while Atria picked up the American rights, and the American version is what hit earlier this month.
Nrama: Rick and Morty sound like they could have been members of Newsarama's old Talk@ forum. For writing this book, how'd you go about getting to know them better as characters to then explore the science?
Brady: It was really the other way around. I think I got to know the characters a lot better by looking at the science first, and then reasoning out what someone who invented the thing - most often Rick - would do that. I know it’s all fictional, obviously, and some of the science is “science,” and there to just move the plot along at times, but I loved looking at the bigger picture. Like, if Rick could make x, then he would've had to have known about y and z. And if he knew about y and z, then he’s be able to…
I know it sounds uber nerdy, and thankfully not much of my psychological analysis of the characters made it into the book, but I think you can really get to know Rick a lot better through his inventions and think about why he makes what he does. There’s a whole “understory” that starts to come together about Rick that is equal parts awesome and tragic, and really explains why he needs Morty.
I think that’s part of the attraction of the show, even if it’s hard for fans to articulate - all appearances to the side, Rick is a character with tremendous depth, and has a lot more to be revealed. Clearly, not all of it is going to be good.
Nrama: Are there particular scientific elements that you think could be replicated in a middle or high school classroom that'd be a good example from the show?
Brady: Middle school...there aren’t too many if the teacher wants to keep their job. I’d be very hesitant to bring Rick and Morty into the school unless it’s in the totally censored form - no one needs to get called to the principal’s office over Rick and Morty being shown in a classroom.
But...that said, there’s at least one thing that could make it in for sure. I mention in the chapter on cockroach brains and Pickle Rick, a company in Ann Arbor called Backyard Brains, that allows you to create a cyborg cockroach. Yeah - that’s not exactly what Rick did, but you can, with Backyard Brains’ kit - do a little simple surgery on a roach that shows just how...controllable their nervous systems are.
And of course, there are the ovenless brownies in there - hey, it’s a science book with a recipe inside!
But I’d really advise against middle and high school classrooms doing some cloning, or messing around with love potions based on a handful of different species.
Nrama: What would you say is the least realistic bit of science in the Rick and Morty show?
Brady: Well, there’s “least” realistic in that it’s just nuts and fantasy, rather than science - things like concentrated dark matter (we’re not sure what dark matter even is, let alone concentrating it…) and the freeze ray, and something like a quantum resonator. Things like that show up now and then, but they’re largely for a gag, or to bump the plot along in a very Rick and Morty way.
But for the totally impossible - the flat out, never ever gonna happen...those are kind of rare. Yeah - many of Rick’s inventions are at the edge - the very, very far edge of what we think could be done with technology and science if we knew this thing or that thing and that’s the bigger...er, thing. Rick and Morty exist in this place where the science and technology they use really is very far advanced by our understanding, but at least we can see how it would work out. The writers do their homework - on many occasions - to get the outer details right. Yeah - they’re not telling us how to make a neutrino bomb, but you know...a neutrino bomb...a neutrino has about zero mass, but can...it’s enough to get you thinking.
For most frequently-used improbable invention or science on the series, that would have to be the Portal Gun, obviously. I did a short chapter on it, and the pieces of it are a little hand-wavey, but hand-wavey in the sense that… “man, if we could just do this…then we’d be able to do that…” I mean - we can’t do any of it, or pull the pieces under our control, but...we can kinda see how the pieces would - or could - work.
And then, of course, shrinking it down to a hand-held size is just the nutty frosting on the crazy cake.
Nrama: Are there any real-life scientific principles and/or theories that the show does a great job at explaining for a casual audience?
Brady: I’m always going to default to the cockroach brain, and how licking it with a brine-soaked tongue would get a nervous system response as some nice anatomy and basic neurology.
But for explaining more? Not really. It’s not the show’s job to be an edgy, cuss-filled Bill Nye for an edgy, cuss-filled generation, and that’s okay. In the introduction, I reference Star Trek, and how that show inspired and filled kids with a sense of wonder about space and aliens and more. I think that’s the role Rick and Morty fills for this edgy, cuss-filled generation. Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon are telling goofy stories in a universe that’s heavy into science fiction, and, as a science teacher, I’m super thankful for that. But that’s what they’re trying to do - tell funny stories that make people laugh, and maybe every now and then go, “huh.”
But it’s that secret science payload that I dig - the setting that allows Rick to wade into all kinds of science and technology as a result of the series being set how it is, and Rick being who Rick is. I’m comfortable with the science being where it is in the show - as I see it, it’s there as a seed, a hook, or as we call it in our The Science Of presentations, a Trojan Horse.
So maybe you laughed a lot when Rick rescued Jerry from the simulation set up by the Zigerions. And then you turned off the TV and went about your business. But maybe later, you start thinking about how that episode was kind of like The Matrix or The 13th Floor, or a dozen other shows and movies with simulations in them, and you start hunting out information on simulations. And then you run into Nick Bostrom’s “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” from 2003, and it rocks your shit.
And you’re off to the races - maybe - studying the possibility of computer simulations, learning about pushing the limits to see if we’re in a simulation (there are hypothetical ways), and then maybe - if the theoretical gets too weird, start looking at video game design, and come up with a revolutionary breakthrough that Rock Star uses in Red Dead Redemption III which makes the game fully immersive VR.
So yeah - from my point of view, Rick and Morty is a honeypot to catch people’s interest in science. If they want to know more well...here’s an Amazon link to a cool book you might dig…
Nrama: This all comes as part of your ongoing work at TheScienceOf.org. Since we have you, let me ask - how has the rise in superhero fiction in the mainstream bubble been in terms of portraying any kind of realism in the scientific sense?
Brady: Well, the science really isn’t “real” real, and I wouldn’t expect it to be. Watching Avengers: Endgame, the point isn’t to get an education about weird physics and the possibilities of time travel. But yet - Marvel and others have tacitly acknowledged that the audience is far savvier than they used to be in terms of science and the larger “rules” of the universe, and as such have been using science advisors in virtually all of...well, the Marvel movies at least, and many others.
And I’m totally cool with that. If Marvel wants to bring in physicists like Sean Carroll and Clifford Johnson to add a touch of believability and maybe a hint of plausibility to their stories, then I’m all for it. The closer they can bring real science in, the better.
Without getting all mystical and full of woo, I think, to a large part, we imagine our future...collectively, and partly unconsciously. NASA and JPL are full of folks my age who watched Star Trek religiously after school and dreamed about a world where they could fly among the stars and had communicators and phasers. I have a communicator in my pocket now - and yeah, it may owe some of its aesthetics to The Next Generation’s PADDs, but still - the idea from the original series is there.
I think the Marvel films have shouldered a huge part of that responsibility now - with other shows and movies, Rick and Morty of course, being one of them - of imagining our future. I mean - look at the explosion in “cool” prosthetics where so many of them are modeled on Tony Stark’s armor. Just like the Treks sparked a wave of inspiration for their generations, I can tell you - I’m on the front lines of this one - the Marvel movies are sparking a wave of inspiration among this generation of kids who look at Wakanda, or Stark Industries and say, “why not?”
Nrama: As a science teacher and Newsarama alumni, has there been any neat real science moment in a superhero movie or TV show as of late that you were delighted to see?
Brady: Boy - there are little bits here and there that I love where you can tell that the writers made the Herculean effort to keep the science real (or real-ish), and it made its way all the way through the directors and producers to the final cut. That doesn’t always happen, but I’m seriously thrilled when I see it.
But the one show that consistently thrills me with its efforts to keep the science real is The Expanse, formerly of SyFy and now on Amazon. I think their unflinching adherence to “real” science (with some caveats for the future, of course) help to make it so realistic and give it so much of its texture. I mean - Holden got dosed with hard radiation in the first season, and its mentioned he’ll be on meds for the rest of his life - and you still see the medical port on him now and again. The spinning space stations...the fights and injuries in space, where - as an offhand line, someone said that “if you start bleeding internally, you’re dead.” In fact - you are...any kind of surgery in space is a bitch and a half, especially when the blood doesn’t drain away and you can’t see what you’re doing.
I actually used some examples of science from The Expanse in my physics classes and mentioned it on Twitter last year. The Expanse Writer’s Room Twitter account got in touch with me and sent me a pile of swag to use with my classes, and my posts were liked by about all the cast members. My life is so weird sometimes.
Nrama: Circling back to the book, what are your goals for The Science of Rick & Morty?
Brady: I’d love for everyone to buy about fourteen copies - I mean, one to read, one to give to partners, parents and other folks who don’t think the show is worth their time, and the rest to leave on buses and out in the wild. We need more people reading, learning and talking about science in this country and this world.
And that’s only half-jokey. As I said earlier, I think we imagine our future, and our inspirations can take many forms. Yeah - I think we may end up in a world that’s somewhere between Star Trek and a Stark Industries design...Stark Trek? But I really hope this book is there for someone - anyone - who digs a weird science mention in Rick and Morty, and wants to find out a little bit more. So that’s one more copy folks need to buy - one for the little sister or brother or cousin who’s not supposed to watch the show, but sneaks it in anyway. Just have a copy casually lying around.
I mention it in the introduction, and it truly is my dream that...20-30 years down the road at the awards ceremony for the Nobel Prize say, in physics, a representative from the team that won it is up there, and is asked how they got started in this line of research that proves the multiverse is real. That person pauses...looks down for a second, kind of laughs to themselves, looks back up...looks at the person who asked the question and starts their answer with, “Have you ever heard of this show called...Rick and Morty?”
Nrama: And any chance we could see you doing more of these, perhaps on a superhero or comic-book-based property?
Brady: I hope so. I’m working with my editor at Atria to see what we can put together - and I have a solid idea that I’d love to get off the ground there, so my fingers are crossed. The thing is - the marketplace for “The Science Of” style books is pretty well saturated these days - just search Amazon. I honestly have no idea how no one had gone after Rick and Morty before now, and my original UK editor, Oli and I pretty much never asked ourselves that for fear of jinxing it, and having one show up on Amazon that day we talked about it.
The property has to be popular enough that a book like this will sell (at least in the publisher’s eyes, which are often very different from the writer’s eyes), but by the time it’s popular enough to support a book like this, someone is already on it. So it’s a bit of a harrowing thing.
And with so many books out there covering this type of material, there’s a real push to make anything new stand out as something different. Like I said - I think I have something that will work in that regard...we’ll just have to see.
In the meantime - I think The Science of Rick and Morty should tide folks over.