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Archive for the ‘Laughing Matters’ Category


See a Scientist Being Scientific

Posted by jns on March 27, 2010

Today in my email I got a link to a video* with this startling title:

NASA Oceanographer Uses Science to Study the Sea

Right there, in a video under two minutes in length, we were being offered the chance to see an actual scientist using science! Not only that, it was an oceanographer using science to study the ocean, if you can imagine such a thing!

But now that I’ve mocked the title–but hardly more than it deserved for being so state-the-obvious ridiculous–we should perhaps look at the video.

Said video is a rather nice, short biography of one Callie Hall, who works at the Stennis Space Center (near the south coast of Mississippi; map). NASA posted it as part of their observation of National Women’s History Month.

[YouTube link for those who don't see the embedded player.]

p.s. I don’t want to be tetchy, but why is she using that reasonably precise analytical balance to weigh that off-the-shelf bottle of whatever?
* From a NASA mailing list this time rather than from some nefarious spammer.


Intro Physics Courses Save Lives

Posted by jns on December 10, 2009

Following a series of links (first, then, finally) got me to this “old physics joke” related by one Craig Moe (in 2001).

Honestly, I’d never heard this one, so it struck me as a real knee-slapper. I’m still giggling.

A physics professor’s teaching an introductory course, and going over kinectics in mind-numbing detail, when a pre-med student yells in exasperation, “How is this shit useful?” (I know, an asshole pre-med. Who could imagine such a thing?) The professor, without turning around, responds “It saves lives.”

The lecture continues for a couple of minutes, until the same pre-med student asks “How does this help save lives?” The professor, again without turning around, replies “It keeps ignoramuses like you out of med school.”


Park’s “Physics Plan” Diet

Posted by jns on February 27, 2009

Conservation of Energy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics are probably the two most important concepts in physics that have thwarted the aspirations and claims of inventors and charlatans for decades. Someday we hope that the public will understand this.

Atkins, Pritikin, Jennie Craig, South Beach, NutriSystem . . . all had one thing in common: they made their inventors very rich. But how could it be that every diet plan seems to work? It’s nothing but consciousness-raising; any plan will make people aware of how much they’re shoveling in. Nine years ago, however, WN came out with the “physics plan.” The plan is based on the Conservation of Energy: “burn more calories than you consume” http://www.bobpark.org/WN00/wn022500.html. Don’t be fooled by cheap imitations. On Wednesday, the New England Journal of Medicine published the results of a two year study of 800 overweight adults. Headed by Frank Sacks of the Harvard School of Public Health, the study confirmed that people lose weight if they cut calories; it doesn’t matter if the calories are fat, carbohydrates, or protein. That, of course, is the WN “physics plan.”

[Robert L. Park, What's New, 27 February 2009.]


On Hydrogen (& Physics Humor)

Posted by jns on October 23, 2008

I recently finished reading the book Hydrogen : The Essential Element, by John S. Rigden (Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press, 2002. vii + 280 pages). Here’s my book note. It’s a book I can recommend.

As I mentioned in the book note, the “hydrogen” of this book is the physicist’s “hydrogen”,* the simple atom of electron + proton (with some isotopic variations) that is the simple test case for all physical theories that deal with things atomic: if it doesn’t work for hydrogen, it’s not going to work.

Hydrogen is overwhelmingly the most abundant atomic species in the universe, making up about 74% (by weight) of the matter we can see. It is the predominant fuel that stars burn through fusion (to make helium nuclei). Hydrogen is the earliest element in the cosmos, protons condensing from a universe of quarks when the temperature finally became low enough, in the period (the “hadron epoch”) between one microsecond to one second after the big bang. It was some time longer before the universe cooled enough (some 380,000 years!) for the protons to capture and hold onto electrons, thus becoming actual atoms of hydrogen (Of course, there had to be electrons to capture; they condensed around one second ABB.#)

Anyway, the history of our modern understanding of the hydrogen atom, and the efforts to gain that understanding, is virtually identical to the history of “modern physics”, by which we loosely mean all that physics stuff from the early twentieth century: quantum mechanics and its friends. Lots of other interesting things get thrown in, too, from all the attention the hydrogen atom got. A couple of the more interesting: the development of the hydrogen maser and very high precision time keeping (i.e., “atomic clocks”, leading to the GPS), and the invention of a technique known to physicists as NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance), which in recent decades developed into the familiar MRI (magnetic-resonance imaging).

Anyway, that’s book-note stuff. What we’re all about here is a couple of leftover quotations from the book that go under the heading: “Physicist’s and their Strange Sense of Humor”. The first two quotations reveal things that physicists find almost knee-slappingly funny but may remain inscrutable to nonscientists (and I wouldn’t worry about that either, if I were you–you’re not missing all that much).

Paul Dirac was a[n] unusual person. Perhaps because Dirac’s father demanded that his young son use French rather than his native English to converse with him, the young Dirac adopted the habit of silence during his childhood simply because he could not express his thoughts in French. Whatever the reason, the adult Paul Dirac was a a man of silence. Dirac’s silence was so intense that it inspired a little levity among physicists. In physics, the units given to physical quantities like time or length are important. Physicists, clearly in jest [!], have defined the unit of silence as the dirac. [p. 89]

For this second joke, I might mention that it was Ed Purcell who pioneered the NMR technique, and that the technique uses magnetic properties of the hydrogen atom, which moves much like a gyroscope when magnetically disturbed (hence the reference to “precessing”**).

I remember, in the winter of our first experiments, just seven years ago, looking at snow…around my doorstep–great heaps of protons quietly precessing in the earth’s magnetic field.
–Edward M. Purcell [quoted on p. 137]

Finally, this one goes into that file where we put really bad predictions of what the future might hold.

In 1952, neither Purcell nor Bloch could have predicted the ways their discovery would advance understanding of solids, of the structure of chemical molecules, and even more. In fact, a representative from Dupont Chemical Company visited Purcell soon after the paper announcing the discovery was published. The Dupont scientist asked Purcell what the practical applications of NMR might be. Purcell responded that he could see no practical applications. In this, Purcell was very wrong. [p. 147]

* Rather than, say, a chemist’s “hydrogen” with discussions of interesting molecules and acids and reducing reactions and carbohydrates, etc. Nor is it an engineer’s “hydrogen”, nor a politician’s “hydrogen” (as in “hydrogen economy”). They’re all stories for another book for someone else to write. What a publishing opportunity!

I just read this the other day about the big bang and the origin of the cosmos (and now I forget who gets the attribution): “In the beginning there was nothing, then it exploded.”

# We could just say “it happened at one second”, since the current understanding has it that time (whatever it is besides a whole other story) began with the big bang.

I’m sure I’ve expressed my peevishness before about how the perfectly good word “nuclear” had to be expunged before MRI could be a commercial success.

** When some body, like the Earth or a hydrogen nucleus, rotates about an axis, and that axis is tilted relative to some other axis about which the tilted axis itself executes a (generally much slower) rotation (a kind of wobble), that latter motion is referred to as “precession”. The precession of the Earth’s axis takes about 26,000 years. Hydrogen atoms do it at about 500 megahertz (or 500,000,000 times each second).


Black Holes and Physicists’ Jokes

Posted by jns on September 22, 2008

A couple of weeks ago, when the world did not end by getting sucked into a black hole newly created by the just-energized Large Hadron Collider (at CERN), it seemed that journalists were casting their lines very widely to find any related story about physicists and CERN and human- or hadron-interest that they could write to cash in on the high-tech apocalyptic anxieties. Case in point: a piece in the Wall Street Journal (referenced below) about a group of scientists at CERN taking part in an experimental workshop program in improvised comedy. The reported justification is that it might help them with their lateral thinking about such allegedly abstruse topics as the Higgs boson. Myself, I think they’re just a little stir crazy from being underground all the time.

But, the piece did report on a few jokes that, it says, physicists tell. To be honest, I hadn’t heard them before. (Well, to be really honest, I’d heard them a day or two before at a rehearsal, told by another cast member who evidently reads the Wall Street Journal.) However, I haven’t moved in physics circles for several years now.

One of the reported jokes: A neutron walks into a bar and asks how much the drinks are. The bartender says: “For you, no charge.”

That’s pretty funny, sure. But they saved the real knee-slapper for the end of the article:

And consider the following one-liner, delivered in the CERN cafeteria by Mr. [Stephen] Goldfarb[, a physicist working at CERN]: “Two protons walk into a black hole.” That’s the joke.

[Alexander Alter, "Two Protons Walk Into a Black Hole, And Other Jokes Physicists Tell", Wall Street Journal, 4 September 2008.]

I am not kidding when I say that this one still makes me laugh every time, although I think it would be slightly funnier this way:

Two photons walk into a black hole….


More to Worry About

Posted by jns on June 5, 2007

I know there are people who can’t sleep at night worrying about the impending explosion of the sun or the heat-death of the universe. Global warming is no doubt adding to their insomnia. Now it turns out that the consequences of global warming are even worse than we thought:

Global warming is expected to raise ocean levels and thereby effectively shift some ocean water from currently deep areas into shallower continental shelves, including a net transfer of water mass from the southern to the northern hemisphere. This in turn will bring just so much water closer to the Earth’s rotational axis, and this — like a figure skater speeding up as she folds her limbs inward — will shorten the diurnal period [i.e., the length of the day]. Not by much, though. According to Felix Landerer, Johann Jungclaus, and Jochem Marotzke, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, the day should shorten by 0.12 milliseconds [0.00012 seconds] over the next two centuries. (Recent issue of Geophysical Review Letters.)

[Phillip F. Schewe and Ben Stein, "Physics News Update: The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Physics News", Number 826, 30 May 2007.]


APS Openness

Posted by jns on March 9, 2007

Today in Bob Park’s What’s New (9 March 2007 edition) was this tidbit:


The commitment of physicists to the principle of openness was tested this very morning in Denver at the APS March meeting, as it has been every year for 108 years. Roy Masters, author of “God Science and Free Energy from Gravity,” was to deliver “Electricity from Gravity” at 9:36 a.m. Anyone can deliver a paper at the March Meeting. What if Masters actually succeeded in using up our gravity to keep the lights on? Not to worry.

I think all physics graduate students, sometime during their years’ long hazing, have noticed this phenomenon. It’s always good for a few giggles. But what Park says is true: any member of the APS may submit an abstract and deliver a 10-minute paper at general meetings of the society. Especially in the days when programs of abstracts were printed and distributed on paper, it was common for a few abstracts to appear for which no speaker materialized at the appointed time.

In my day there was someone who submitted an abstract at every opportunity, but who never appeared at the meetings; I don’t remember his name or where he was from. In those days one had a piece of paper on which a rectangle was inscribed; one’s abstract would be photographically reproduced and everything that was to be printed must appear withing the bounds. Said person always included a photograph of some geological feature, around which he typed his abstract, and then he filled the remaining bits of space with arrows to bits of the photo and handwritten notes. In the physics world I suppose it’s what passes for conceptual art.

Similarly, for years while I was in graduate school, there was every month, without fail, a small advertisement in the back of Physics Today from a person whose name now escapes me, who was searching for his “gamma-gamma correlations”. None of us knew what “gamma-gamma correlations” were — mostly because there is no such thing — but the advertiser never gave up hope.

Then, when I was nearing the end of graduate school, the advertisements disappeared. We were all a bit bereft at the loss of this institution. Then, after a couple of months another advertisement appeared in which the previous advertiser now promised to sell, for a small fee, something like all the secrets of the universe based on his theory about “gamma-gamma correlations”, or something like that. He had apparently found them and we could all rest again, knowing that the integrity of fringe science was safe again.


Fairy-Tale Astronomy

Posted by jns on October 12, 2006

In a way it’s hardly worth the bother to describe the background to this tidbit, which is a headline to a “Search and Discovery” item in this month’s Physics Today.* The story concerns type Ia supernovae, which are white dwarf stars that make their startling brightness by accreting enough mass to ignite the fusion of carbon in their core, vaporizing the star. But, along the way, accreting mass may simply ignite in a smaller fusion explosion on the surface of the star and blow away from it — this is a plain nova, and they’re much more frequent occurences.

It might seem like a challenge for the white dwarf to find mass to swallow up, but it’s not so hard because many of them are in binary-star arrangements, and they can take mass from their companion star. One such nova outburst was seen recently. Here’s a bit of the background from the story:

Stargazers have noticed novae since antiquity. But only 10 novae, RS Ophiuchi among them [the interesting star system that's the subject of the article], have ever been caught in outburst more than once. RS Ophiuchi flared up in 1985, 1967, 1958, 1933, and 1898 and possibly in 1944 and 1902. Hiroaki Narumi and Kiyotaka Kanai of Japan spotted the new outburst on 12 February and promptly alerted their fellow astronomers.

From the previous outbursts, astronomers identified RS Ophiuchi as a symbiotic binary: a white dwarf and red giant orbiting their mutual center of mass. [...] The pairing is unusual. So far, only about 200 symbiotics have been cataloged in our galaxy.

What Narumi and Kanai witnessed was the thermonuclear explosion on the white dwarf surface. As the burning layer lifts off, it expands adiabatically and cools. By March, the ejecta’s optical flux had plunged to one thousandth of its 4.5-magnitude peak.

Anyway, the whole point of my mentioning it was to assert that — occasionally — even physicists display their sense of humor, although it might not always be recognizable to others. It was the title of the article that caused me to chortle:

White dwarf is caught hurling its outer layers at its red giant companion

Make of it what you will.
*Unfortunately it’s subscriber only, but for reference, here’s the link.


Three New Things

Posted by jns on July 14, 2006

Three items in this week’s issue of “What’s New”, by Bob Park,* amused me enough to share. That I found these amusing may tell you more about me than anything.#

Here’s the scene: Adam Dreamhealer is a normal 19 year-old, who wears an earring, has a tattoo, pumps iron, and all that stuff. A regular guy, except he has this gift. It came from a 4-foot tall blackbird he encountered on a strange island. The bird downloaded all the world’s knowledge into Adam’s head. Now Adam goes into trances in dark rooms to manipulate quantum holograms with his hands. (Tom Cruise in Minority Report?) It enables Adam to cure cancers that haven’t been verified by biopsy. How does it work? “Quantum mechanics.” An over-the-hill physicist said scientists “groan” at that explanation. He said more but it was cut. Dr. Edgar Mitchell of Apollo 14 fame came on and agreed with Adam that it must be quantum mechanics. It was Mitchell who carried out ESP experiments from space, and now worries about all of these UFO visits. He is the author of Quantum Holography: A Basis for the Interface Between Mind and Matter. Why am I telling you this? Because I was the “over-the-hill physicist” who allowed himself to be used. I will perform any penance WN readers feel is appropriate. I really should have known better: http://bobpark.physics.umd.edu/WN05/wn021105.html.

Feynman once described science as “what we have learned about how not to fool ourselves.” The most important discovery in medicine is the randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled test, by means of which we learn what works and what doesn’t. When I was first contacted by ABC about Adam Dreamhealer, a producer asked how I would respond to Adam’s claims? “I would ask for the test results,” I replied. But of course, there are no test results. That’s the point. And it’s the only point ABC needed to make.

Several readers commented on last week’s science v. religion story that, if a zygote is assigned a soul, identical twins would have to share a soul. One reader noted that in the very rare case of chimerism, which involves the fusion of two paternal twin zygotes, one person would have two souls. Identical twins, however, as we all know, are not identical. Many connections in the brain, mostly dealing with language, are still not completed at birth. In the sense that our “essence” is our “soul,” the soul keeps changing throughout life.

* Archive at http://www.bobpark.org. Bob: when are you going to start the “What’s New Blog”?

# It should go without saying that physicists often have an inscrutible sense of humor, particularly when it comes to physics jokes; that is to say, there are things that physicists find knee-slappingly funny that makes no sense to others.


But Is It Science?

Posted by jns on February 10, 2006

It is not often that I laugh out loud while reading court decisions. True, I may smile at a clever argument or an adept turn of phrase, or maybe chuckle over displays of willful stupidity; however, cackling is not a common response for me.

Today I’m finally giving a first read to Judge Jones’ decision in Kitzmiller v Dover, the case last fall concerning the Dover, PA school-board’s decision to demand inclusion of so-called intelligent-design creationism in the curriculum of the biology classroom.*

I’ve just gotten through the important first half in which the judge gives his rationale for finding that actions taken by the school board had been in violation of the Constitution’s establishment clause. Just before he takes up the question of “Whether ID is Science” (section 4, p. 64), he offers the following justification. I think his tone is well indicated by his use of the word “traipse”, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before in a judicial opinion (in case the reference to judicial waste of time hadn’t been clear enough).

We have now found that both an objective student and an objective adult member of the Dover community would perceive Defendants’ conduct to be a strong endorsement of religion pursuant to the endorsement test. Having so concluded, we find it incumbent upon the Court to further address an additional issue raised by Plaintiffs, which is whether ID is science. To be sure, our answer to this question can likely be predicted based upon the foregoing analysis. While answering this question compels us to revisit evidence that is entirely complex, if not obtuse, after a six week trial that spanned twenty-one days and included countless hours of detailed expert witness presentations, the Court is confident that no other tribunal in the United States is in a better position than are we to traipse into this controversial area. Finally, we will offer our conclusion on whether ID is science not just because it is essential to our holding that an establishment Clause?violation has occurred in this case, but also in the hope that it may prevent the obvious waste of judicial and other resources which would be occasioned by a subsequent trial involving the precise question which is before us.

* Much useful information, including a copy of Jones’ opinion, can be found on this ACLU web page.