Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty has amassed a ridiculous cult of followers since its first season touched eyeballs way back in December of 2013. From yelling, “Wubba Lubba Dub Dub” to terrorizing McDonald’s employees for Szechuan Sauce, the show continued to push the boundaries of nihilistic Sci Fi satire and intellectualized pop culture.
Enter: Matt Brady. The former front man for the Eisner Award-Winning entertainment website Newsarama turned professional educator went from shaping the perceptions of comic book industry fandom to the minds of our country’s youth.
Now? Brady has a new book hitting shelves this week that elucidates at length about the hard science behind the brilliance of what might be one of the “Stupidest” shows on television.
From the deepest regions of the Abyss, FreakSugar Senior Editor Steve Ekstrom has risen out of semi-retirement to interview his former boss and good friend about the release of The Science of Rick and Morty.
FreakSugar: How many hours of research did you pour into The Science of Rick and Morty before you began writing?
Matt Brady: Any research was ongoing as I wrote it, really. I have a pretty deep biology background from college and graduate school prior to my Newsarama days, and have been teaching physics and chemistry and writing about science for about ten years at this point, so I had a solid foundation to work from. Once we had the organization down and I had structured things out, it was pretty much intensely focused research blended with writing as I went, pause at the end to make sure I hit all the high points, and then work my way into the next topic.
I really can’t remember a time where I wasn’t researching and writing pretty much at the same time, though—especially in a few cases where what I was writing about had really current research going on. For example, the picture of the black hole that we all geeked out about in spring? Yeah—the British version says that one day soon, we’ll get an image of a black hole, while the US version says that we have just managed to capture an image of a black hole.
FS: Was there anything you wanted to stay away from?
Brady: Nope. I channeled my inner Rick Sanchez a bit and just plowed right through. I did a fairly big chunk on evolution in there, and while I wasn’t looking to be offensive to any readers, I figured that if you were buying a book about science that’s tied to Rick and Morty, you were probably okay with the idea of evolution in the first place. So…you were warned.
I talk about sex with aliens, and offspring, the ethics and unintended consequences of what Rick is doing, and how, in light of some of his inventions, he’s really a monster. I mean—he created a microverse to power his car’s battery. Why not just use the sun that the microverse planet orbited? That has waaaay more energy than the people could produce. Why enslave an entire planet’s population?
FS: There’s a nice jab at the nihilistic tone of Rick & Morty on the cover of the book; is Rick & Morty the “stupidest show”? You lay some pretty lofty praise on it in your intro…
Brady: Yeah—that title came from the British publisher, and for the full effect, you have to think or say it with a British accent. Like “Oh, you mean Monty Python? You mean that stupid show we all loved and watched when it came on?”
But, yeah, I hinted that it wasn’t going to play as well in the States, but they were pretty set with it. On the upside, I get the question just about every interview…so there’s that.
But, yeah, to answer your question, I’ve got nothing but praise for the show—it’s got clever writing, terrific characters, action, emotion, punches right in the feels when you’re least expecting them, and of course, a load of science.
FS: When I was reading, I noticed that some of your chapters chained together nicely from subject to subject; is there a method to “arranging” non-fiction in your mind? Or did you just go with the flow?
Brady: I tried to keep a flow going so I wouldn’t have to make too many callbacks to, “Hey, remember last week, when you read the chapter about…?” so we wanted to keep the chapters say, about life science together, the chapters about big-scale physics and cosmology together, etc.
Once I started looking at the science in Rick and Morty from an organizational standpoint, things laid themselves out pretty nicely.
FS: You cite a ton of different scientists throughout the book. I really liked an early passage describing Enrico Fermi, for example. Who is your favorite scientist and why do you relate to them on a personal level?
Brady: Ha! Favorite…that’s tough. I have some modern favorites, like Brian Greene, Brian Cox, Kip Thorne or Lisa Randall that I’d love to meet someday…but I’d probably just fanboy out, and end up being an incoherent dork.
As for “favorite” favorite…it would have to be Isaac Newton. I can go on and on about him, so much so to the point that my original editor sent me note after getting one of my chapters that said, “I hope to meet someone someday who I feel about the same way you feel about Isaac Newton.” Yeah, I can embarrass myself with Newton. Niels Bohr is probably a close second.
But I’d never in a million years say I would relate to Newton in any scientific way. Nope.
The thing I do love is when you find out that these scientists are just…people. They have flaws, they’re weird, they get angry, they hold grudges, they take sides, they form alliances, they do heroic things, they do cowardly things.
So much of what we know as scientific fact came from these flawed, beautiful people—just like us. Perhaps with a bit more schooling and studying. But still—science is a human thing. We can tell ourselves stories of these “perfect” scientists and end up mythologizing them. Ugh—they’re people. Warts and all.
FS: What chapters of the book were the most fun to write? Which chapters did you struggle with?
Brady: I loved writing about cockroach brains and making cyborg cockroaches. Some of the chapters that hit on science fiction tropes were fun to get into and add my two cents about say, why we can’t have giant or teeny-tiny people. I also loved chapters where I was able to break something down to the basics, and it felt like I was teaching while I was writing. Neutrino bombs, for instance…we hear about “neutrinos” a lot in science fiction…what are they? Could this kind of bomb actually work? Spoilers: not really.
And probably the chapter that was most challenging was about Rick’s Portal Gun. We kind of understand the ideas about different universes, and have some theories about wormholes, and other theories about possibly about making them on demand. But put that all together? That was one where—while the science is way at the edge of what we understand—making it all work took a little hand-waving.
Long story short, cyborg cockroaches are already a thing, but no Portal Guns are going to be showing up anytime soon—if they ever do.
FS: Who are your favorite Rick & Morty characters? Why?
Brady: Probably Summer and Beth—mostly due to their somewhat limited roles in the stories to date. Summer is showing herself to be a very smart, capable young woman who seems to understand more of the science and what’s going on with Rick than Morty does, and as a result, interacts with Rick in a completely different way than her brother. You can see when Rick lumps both of them together and treats them the same, Summer’s the one to put her foot down and reject it. She’s her own person—not just a female Morty. That’s nice to see.
And Beth—they’ve been really careful in doling out bits and pieces of her backstory with her father and digging into their relationship. I mean—the box of all the toys that Rick had to make for her—as well as Froopyland, since no one wanted to play with her? And how she fully accepted that she was her father’s daughter? Not to mention…is she a clone?
Don’t get me wrong—Rick and Morty themselves and their storylines are terrific…but Beth and Summer—I want to know more about them.
FS: Best overall episode of the show?
Brady: I’m torn between “Pickle Rick” and “The Rickshank Redemption” for completely non-science reasons. Both of them were amazing action stories and beautifully executed, and that’s what hit me first with both. But the background that you learn about RIck in both is nicely embedded in there as well, not to mention Rickshank had the payoff of a large chunk of story.
But those are my go-to episodes for sure.
FS: What makes Rick Sanchez such an excellent cipher for modern scientific rationalization? What do you think drives the character’s nihilistic mindset?
Brady: This is just me, so don’t hold it against any scientist you hear speaking or read their work—but I think Rick is this dark voice that’s waaaay down deep in the brain of a lot of scientists—and maybe closer to the surface in others. There’s this exasperation with the modern world, as well as a belief that science can get us out of problems that Rick can capture that is probably echoed by many. I know I can hear it in my head sometimes reading through science news and responses online.
FS: Are these sorts of examinations of science through the lens of popular culture and science fiction the true gateway to successfully engaging the average human mind and opening up the possibility of creating folks who want to have more scientific discovery in their lives?
Brady: I believe so, yeah. I use pop culture examples in my classroom with chemistry and physics, and write about it a lot at thescienceof.org. It’s larger than just pop culture and science fiction, too—science needs story. In this world of information, no one is starving for facts. I mean, you can disagree with human-caused climate change, or vaccines to prevent disease, but to do so is to cherry pick data, and largely, only believe the facts you want to believe. No climate or vaccine denier is going to one day look at a graph in a presentation—or jammed in their face by an angry Facebook post—and say, “Oh my god, I am so wrong and everything I believe is untrue!”
Why is Greta Thunberg a worldwide phenomenon? Watch her first speech. Why is it so effective? She takes what we know and wraps it in a story—her story. What her future will be like. That story makes the difference—allowing people to see it in a different way than the traditional “science class” way they may see it, or may have learned it. Personalize it. I’m teaching a science communication class at Wake Forest University, and that’s the central theme…if you want to get your science across, you need to tell a story.
As far as pop culture, specifically, with something like Rick and Morty, or heck—Black Panther, or Iron Man…they’re like Trojan Horses as far as the science is concerned. Once they’re in your head and have found a home via the story, the science can show up and take root. Whether that leads you to take action, or just to go out and learn more about…cosmology, invisibility, armored suits, the environment or whatever—that’s easier to do after its been introduced as a story.
FS: What else are you currently working on?
Brady: Teaching takes up a lot of my time, but I’ve also got a few things here and there. I’m back to writing science columns for Tom Peyer and Jamal Igle’s Dragonfly and Dragonflyman from AHOY, working on getting a second book up and running, my wife and I are founding partners of thescienceofwinstonsalem.org—which is all about getting science out to underserved populations of kids and presenting science in surprising places and we’re hitting a few comic cons and science teacher conferences here and there to talk about using pop culture in STEM (science technology engineering and math) education.
FS: What more can you tell readers about TheScienceOf.org?
Brady: That’s a website that my wife and I started that’s basically…everything we do. I write articles about the intersection of pop culture and science (slowly…my writing output isn’t what it was in Newsarama days)—and really try to teach readers about the real science behind some cool science in comics, television, games and movies. It’s been pretty rewarding and fun to get back behind the steering wheel of a website again.
Also—my wife’s side of things…though we share responsibilities—is aimed at developing a community for teachers who are looking for ways to use pop culture in their classrooms—no matter what grade or topics they need to teach. That’s been coming along slowly, but we’re getting things moving and making sure to get the science out.
FS: That sounds awesome, Matt. Last question—for me—do you think Rick could potentially be Morty via the Grandfather Paradox?
Brady: Maybe—it’s a dick move to the audience if it is, but it’s possible. I kinda like a different interpretation which I go into in the last chapter—Rick knows everything, he can invent everything. That’s a recipe for nothing having meaning anymore. Morty is chaos. Morty is unending questions. Morty is—almost—unconditional love. It’s tough for Rick to be “god Rick” with Morty. Rick needs Morty as much as—or even more than—Morty needs Rick.
Be sure to hit book stores across the multi-verse in search of your own copy of The Science of Rick and Morty; it hits shelves October 1st.