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Nobel prize-winning Harvard chemist Dudley R. Herschbach’s skin turned an unusual shade of yellow yesterday, but not to worry: the energetic professor’s affliction was not the result of an introductory chemistry demo gone wrong.
Herschbach, a laureate since he took home the chemistry prize in 1986, made a special cameo as himself on “The Simpsons” Halloween special, “Treehouse of Horror XIV.”
This was Herschbach’s first experience as a cartoon, and he was satisfied with his animated, yellowed-self. “I thought it was a great improvement,” he said.
In the episode, which aired last night, Herschbach presents character Professor Frink with a Nobel Prize in science for reanimating his deceased father. The father runs amok during the ceremony, stealing the brains of several members of the audience and shoving them into his own head.
Having received a Nobel Prize himself, Herschbach noted that the show contained some startling inaccuracies. “They don’t actually go racing down the audience and attacking people,” he said.
Herschbach co-presents the award with Jennifer Garner, the star of ABC’s “Alias.” Unfortunately Herschbach did not have the opportunity to meet Garner.
“I have only seen her as a cartoon,” he lamented.
Comedian Jerry Lewis also made a guest appearance on last night’s episode as Professor Frink’s father.
Matt Warburton ’00, who recently won an Emmy for his job as a writer for “The Simpsons,” recommended Herschbach for the role. The professor taught Warburton seven years ago in an introductory chemistry class.
Herschbach’s 15 minutes of fame was actually only fourteen words long. “That’s all you want? Fourteen words?” Herschbach asked the producer. “But she told me that last year John Updike had a guest appearance on the show and said only two words—his name.”
Fourteen words might not sound like a lot, but the delivery actually required a great deal of virtuoso, according to Herschbach. The scientist was asked to record 20 different versions of his lines with a variety of emotional intonations. The final version was chosen long after the recording took place and was a surprise to the scientist, who saw the episode for the first time when it aired last night.
Herschbach joked that his participation in the show might dispel some stereotypes of his colleagues. “For a lot of people, scientists seem to be a breed apart,” he said. “But scientists enjoy having fun as much as anyone else.”
Many students across campus sat down to watch last night’s episode unaware that Herschbach would make an appearance.
Gabriel I. Chodorow-Reich ’05, an avid “Simpsons” watcher, saw the show but didn’t get the joke. “I didn’t catch the reference,” he said.
Ten students in Lowell E Entryway gathered to watch the episode during a study-break, but did not know that Herschbach was going to make an appearance.
“We had no idea,” said Rebecca H. Dezube ’04, who organized the study-break with her roommate. “We recognized the name, but none of us actually had the professor.”
Scores of public figures have appeared on “The Simpsons” as guest characters, including former president George Bush, celebrities such as Lisa Kudrow and Drew Barrymore and scientist Stephen Hawking.
Herschbach also joins an illustrious tradition of Harvard faculty members who have provided creative inspiration for the show’s writers, many of whom are Harvard graduates. Baker Professor of Economics Martin S. Feldstein ’61 and Bass Professor of Government Michael J. Sandel are purported to be the inspiration for major character Montgomery Burns.
But Herschbach was unaware that he had joined such an elite club.
“I wasn’t a ‘Simpsons’ fan,” he said.
Will the professor start watching the show now that he has been immortalized as one of its yellow characters? Said Herschbach, “I doubt it.”
—Benjamin J. Soskin contributed to the reporting of this story.
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