Sept. 13, 2011 -- "Futurama", an animated science fiction series that started with an average Joe from the 20th century waking up from cryogenic sleep in the year 3,000 to find a world populated with mutants, aliens and robots, finished the second half of its sixth season last week on Comedy Central.
Although Fry, Leela, Bender and the rest of the Planet Express crew live in a universe of pig-nosed clones, dark-matter-powered spaceships and dumpster-diving, man-sized lobster people, the 31st-century series draws inspiration not only from science fiction but also science fact.
In this slide show, explore some of the parallels between "Futurama" and real-life science and technology to see whether they got it right.
The final episode of the second half of the sixth season, called "Reincarnation," features three vignettes that each revolve around a "Diamondium comet."
Now a Diamodium comet is a celestial object that could only exist in the mind of a cartoon writer or a madman. However, super-hard diamonds in meteorites? Now we're getting back to reality.
The ultra-hard carbon crystals in these meteorites were created under intense pressure and heat as a result of the meteorite impact. And it doesn't stop there.
An entire planet has been observed by the exoplanet-hunting Kepler space telescope made out of a kind of exotic diamond. The planet, located 4,000 light-years from Earth, is part of a binary star system and is the leftovers of a once-massive star reduced to solid carbon.
Taking it one step further, scientists have even spotted a dead star encased in diamond. The neutron star is encased in a thin atmosphere of solid carbon.
The episode "The Prisoner of Benda" revolves around a mind-switching machine invented by Professor Farnsworth so that characters within their episode can live out their fantasies by taking on the physical identity of another. One unfortunate side effect of the experiment is that the machine can't be used to reverse the effect on the same two people.
For this episode, writer Ken Keeler, who also has a doctorate from Harvard University in applied mathematics, devised a proof, which appears on a holographic blackboard during the episode, to set things right and put each character back into their original bodies.
The proof works by restoring each character's mind to the original body provided that two additional people who have not previously had their identities switched to assist with the process.
Although Keeler himself refers to his equation as a proof, it has since become known as the "Futurama Theorem." (Click here for a full description of how the theorem works.)
Bender, the hard-drinking, aspiring folk singing, kleptomaniac robot, hates to work about as much as he loves himself. In the episode "Benderama," Bender avoids doing "two things" -- folding two sweaters -- by simply doing one thing: making two smaller copies of himself using a new invention by the Professor.
To make the smaller clones, however, Bender has to ingest an equal amount of matter from which to build the mini-Benders. Complications ensue when the mini-Benders make their own copies in an infinite series that threaten all of Earth's resources.
This scenario is actually based on a doomsday scenario dubbed "gray goo" first proposed by author and nanotechnology expert K. Eric Drexler. In his book "Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology," Drexler examines a scenario in which automated nanotechnology created self-replicating machines that would eventually use up all of Earth's resources.
Although there are potential risks to humans and the environment from nanotech, this scenario has long since been dismissed as impossible.
Like any science fiction series that explores the distant future, "Futurama" is populated with a wide range of robots with humanoid feelings, emotions and even gender. Although the robots portrayed in "Futurama" are considerably more complex than any model available today, engineers are making strides into making robots more like us.
Let's start with robots with emotions. Scientists at the University of Hertfordshire have already built robots that can learn, recognize and react to basic emotional cues, such as happiness, sadness, fear and pride. Engineering students from Tsukuba University have also created a robot that appears like and mimics the behavior of a human infant intended to teach expecting parents.
When it comes to feelings, engineers have created a robot for dental students that "feels" pain. Some robots are also trained to learn our pain threshold to prevent the possibility of injury between human-robot interactions.
As far as robots with sexuality, especially creative (and somewhat perverted) engineers have created Roxxxy, a life-size machine with feminine features, speech recognition, artificial intelligence and a selection of prerecorded phrases. The future really is here after all.
We are still, however, years away from creating drinking, smoking, narcissistic robots.
Aliens in "Futurama" come in all shapes, sizes and even states, including extraterrestrials constituted of liquid and gas. Sure, there are some aliens that resemble creatures on Earth, such as the crab-like Dr. Zoidberg or the Hypnotoad, there are some entirely original biological creations in this series.
These portrayals in many ways fit with what we would likely encounter should humans ever run into alien life. Unlike many other television series and films that portray aliens, "Futurama's" extraterrestrials don't all possess common carbon-based animal features, such as four limbs, vertical symmetry.
This kind of biodiversity reflects what SETI scientists expect to find should be ever make contact with aliens. In fact, in an article appearing on Space.com, SETI Institute senior astronomer Seth Shostak suggests that given the likelihood that any alien coming our way would possess technology far beyond our own, Shostak predicts that aliens will be more machine than humanoid.
Although physically extraterrestrials will likely be quite different from humans, it's possible that they will resemble humans in terms of behavior and psychology, according to Simon Conway Morris, professor of evolutionary paleobiology at Cambridge University -- exactly how aliens are portrayed throughout the "Futurama" series.
Reviving the Dead?
The first half of the first episode of the sixth season, titled "Rebirth," begins with a simple conundrum: All of the characters are dead save Professor Farnsworth (and one other, though we won't say who to avoid spoiling it for you).
To reanimate his very dead crew, the Professor has a simple answer: bathing the remains of the deceased in a stem-cell solution in what he calls a "birth machine."
Reviving the dead, for now, remains an impossibility. But using stem cells to rebuild damaged tissue? That process is growing closer to reality as a number of institutions have explored the possibility of using stem cells to promote tissue regeneration of skin, muscles, blood vessels and more.
Human trials for these procedures are still years away, however.
Planet Express is an intergalactic delivery company, and an unsuccessful one at that. What the company has going for it, however, is a spaceship powered by dark matter.
Although traveling to another galaxy (with a dark-matter-fueled transport, no less) is purely within the realm of fiction, scientists with Project Icarus are working on a five-year study dedicated to developing a spacecraft that could travel to a nearby star.
How does the ship work exactly? Not with dark matter,
Heads... in Jars?
In the world of "Futurama," humans share their universe not only with aliens, robots and mutants, but also historical figures ranging from dead presidents (with a recurring role for Richard Nixon) to contemporary celebrities.
How are these long-dead people kept alive in the 31st century? It's simple: Their severed heads are preserved in jars.
Keeping heads preserved in a jar may seem impossible and has yet to be proven, but the U.S. government has granted patents to applicants claiming they had developed systems for keeping severed heads alive. There's even
In the episode "Cold Warriors," Fry comes down with the common cold. Unfortunately for the rest of the Planet Express crew and everyone else living in New New York in the 31st century, the common cold has long been extinguished and humanity no longer possesses immunity to it.
Diseases have come and gone throughout history, but it's not unheard of for a long-forgotten disease to suddenly reemerge without warning, often with deadly results.
In 2009, an outbreak of bubonic plague killed three people in China, as reported by ABC News. Smallpox, another disease eradicated in the 20th century, still exists in laboratories in the United States and Russia and could pose a threat should it ever reemerge.
In the season four episode "The Farnsworth Parabox," Professor Farnsworth invents what appears to be a simple box, but inside the seemingly ordinary box is a parallel universe. The idea of consecutive (as opposed to parallel) universes was also explored in the sixth season episode "The Late Phillip J. Fry" in which Fry, Bender and the Professor take a time machine to the end of history only for their universe to reemerge in a subsequent Big Bang.
The idea of parallel universes, also known as a multiverse, may provide ample fodder of fiction, but it's a question that both philosophers and physicists have wrestled with for over a century.
String theory, commonly known as a "theory of everything," and other competing theories of quantum mechanics envision a world of multiple dimensions -- and possibly parallels universes -- beyond what we can observe.
Scientific American has devoted entire issues to the possibility of a multiverse. Although astronomers are able to see about 42 billion light-years into our cosmic surroundings, they have no reason to believe that's where our universe ends -- or that there aren't other universes out there in which the same laws of physics apply.
Whether parallel universes exist in their own bubbles our own, whether life exists on those parallel universes and what that would mean for our understanding of our own nature -- as well as whether they have their own version of "Futurama" -- are questions waiting to be answered.