The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded the other day, and for the 42nd consecutive year since I first took a course in the subject, I didn’t win. Excuse me if sound a tad bitter this morning.
This year’s winners were Serge Haroche and David Wineland, who “developed methods for measuring and manipulating individual particles while preserving their quantum-mechanical nature.” I’ll continue as soon as you finish your yawn and close your mouth.
I went to college at the University of Chicago, where physics is a big deal, kind of like football at Ohio State. Twenty-eight winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics have been affiliated with the school. You can’t swing a dead cat in a physics lab there without hitting a Nobel laureate. I know–when I was a freshman we tried. They finally made us stop–it wasn’t fair to the cat.
Even though I had no intention of ever doing anything with atoms or molecules when I started college at the age of 17, I was compelled by the U of C’s “Core Curriculum” to take an introductory course in physics so that I would be a well-rounded intellectual when I came out four years later. You know how embarrassing it can be when you’re at a cocktail party and some woman says “Don’t eat that potato chip–I dropped my anti-neutrino in the French onion dip.” It is essential in such situations that one have at least an elementary knowledge of sub-atomic particles.
Physics is everywhere at the U of C. My first-year dorm room window looked out on the former site of the underground squash court where Enrico Fermi set off the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction, an event which set back my introduction to the game of squash for another decade. There was no way I was going to expose myself to radiation just to learn a snooty game played predominantly by rich white men that dated back to British debtors’ prisons. Racquetball was fine with me, thank you.
My early promise in physics was revealed by an experiment I performed in my first lab session. Unlike chemistry labs, physics labs don’t smell bad, as long as you stay away from the graduate assistants. Each student was given instructions for the experiment, which involved a little metal boat that scooted back and forth along a track made frictionless by a cushion of air underneath. We were supposed to measure something or other which, we were told, would fall within a given range of expected results.
What, I asked the lab assistant, would happen if our results didn’t fall within that range?
“That,” he said dubiously, “would be a major upheaval in science.”
I went to work and, when I had completed the experiment and written up my conclusions, the earth-shattering results were staring me in the face, as plain as a pig on a sofa.
I went over to the lab assistant and showed him. “Look!” I shouted with excitement. “A major upheaval in science!”
“Hmph,” he sniffed as I handed him my lab book. He looked over my calculations, and a sneer of condescension crept across his face. “You’ve obviously done something wrong,” he said.
It was really sad to see someone so consumed with jealousy, but I could understand his reaction. He’d probably spent the better part of a decade working in the field, and I come along and knock one out of the park my first time at bat.
And so it continued. Every week a new lab assignment, every week a major upheaval in science! I was on fire! If there were any justice in the world, I would have received a Nobel Prize in physics long ago. Instead, I have to choke back my tears every fall when a nimrod nobody’s ever heard of wins for some cockamamie crap like “string theory.” Puh-lease!
So next time you’re sitting in your favorite bar watching TV and the news announcer comes on and says that so-and-so has just won the Nobel Prize in physics, you can turn with an air of astuteness to your companions and say with confidence: “What a joke–everybody knows those things are rigged.”
Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Chicago: Not Just for Toddlin’ Anymore.”
PRINCETON, N.J. The average IQ of this university town is normally high, but it hits its annual peak on the weekend of the Gauss-Fleckner Conference on Experimental Physics when some of the brainiest men and women in the world converge on the campus of Princeton to read and listen to each other’s papers and to participate in discussions whose turbulence can literally change the world. “The brainstorms can get pretty fierce,” says Natalie Hartnett, an administrative aide at the institute that sponsors the confab. “We post small-mind warnings around the neighborhood to make sure no one is hurt by untested theorems flying around.”
“He called you a farthammer. How do we retaliate in a nuanced, thoughtful way?”
But the assembled scientists are known for something else besides their grey matter among local law enforcement officials. “We’ve had a few incidents over the past coupla years where we had to use pepper spray,” says Princeton University Campus Police Sergeant James Hampy. “I would not be takin’ a quantum leap if I said some of these guys can get kinda squirrelly when a discussion ’bout the law of thermodynamics gets heated.”
Niels Bohr and wife Margrethe riding motorcycle–without helmets!
Tensions began to simmer at a lecture on the speed at which the universe is expanding Friday night. “If the universe is expanding,” said Dr. Oswalt Gurney of Syracuse University during the question and answer session that followed, “what is it expanding into–except the universe!”
“No, no, you’ve got it all wrong,” replied Dr. Fung Chen or the University of California-Irvine. “It is like a balloon that is expanding in your hands while you inflate it.”
“I put some Spanish Fly into Little Miss I Don’t Believe in Anti-Neutrinos’ Diet Coke!”
With that, Stuart Versch, a graduate teaching assistant, stood up and said “Is your balloon filled with air, or water?”
Dr. Chen began to chuckle, then said “Your metaphor is inapt. It really doesn’t matter which image you use,” at which point Versch hurled a water balloon at the speaker as he yelled “If it doesn’t matter, have a taste of this!”
Order was restored and the academics retired to the faculty lounge for a “Bend an Elbow and the Space-Time Continuum!” happy hour where discussion shifted to “string theory,” an exotic but increasingly popular theorem that some believe will eventually harmonize all the laws of physics under a single “unified field” theory.
“I can’t believe you’re still locked into your outmoded three-dimensional thinking,” chided Prof. Jeffrey Chow after listening to Dr. Philip Castrop offer his reservations about the concept. “It’s people like you who give the rigorous and thoughtful kooks like me a bad name.”
“I’ll show you what I think of string theory,” Castrop said as pulled out a can of Silly String, the non-toxic spray streamer that “brings out the fun” for group events of all kinds.
“Why you . . .” Chow sputtered as he was covered with colored string by Castrop and a number of his colleagues, who then turned and ran towards the exit only to reappear at a plenary session the next morning as if nothing had happened.
If Silly String is outlawed, only outlaws will have Silly String.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Castrop said when Chow confronted him at the podium. “Maybe it was my doppelganger who did it. I was in a completely alternative universe at the time.”