Former Bell Labs physicist Jan Hendrik Schoen was a bit of a wunderkind back in 2001, hailed by some as a modern-day alchemist because he'd managed to get electricity to boldly conduct in certain materials (like pentacene) that had never conducted before. Barely five years out of grad school, the German-born Schoen's name was already being bandied about as a Nobel Prize contender.
It all went horribly, tragically wrong a year later, when physicists discovered that Schoen's most impressive experimental data had been fabricated. To put it bluntly, he made stuff up. It's not the kind of thing the physics community takes lightly, nor should it be. Author C.P. Snow (himself a scientist), in his novel The Search, said fraud was "the most serious crime a scientist can commit." A specially appointed panel of scientific experts agreed, declaring that Schoen had demonstrated "a reckless disregard for the sanctity of data in the value system of science." It is unquestionably among the darkest moments in recent physics history.
Consequences fell hard and fast once the deception was exposed. Schoen literally lost everything: his Bell Labs job, a prestigious appointment as director of one of the Max Planck Institutes in Germany, several prizes he'd been awarded, even his PhD. He returned to Germany in disgrace and quickly faded into obscurity.
Until now, that is. Schoen has been immortalized in a satirical musical composition called "Fabricate," sung to the tune of "Cabaret," and penned by physics professor Laura Greene of the University of Illinois. It contains the resounding chorus, "Come and just fabricate, young Schoen/ Come and just fabricate!" (You can find the complete lyrics here.) Can a Broadway musical be far behind?
Greene performed the tune in person Wednesday evening at a "physics singalong" event, part of the APS March Meeting in Baltimore. That's right, the normally sober and staid APS sponsored an entire evening of scientists stumbling over unfamiliar words to familiar tunes while being accompanied by a guitar and a bongo. (Richard Feynman would have been there in a heartbeat.) Some of the 50-odd folks in attendance even indulged in a little impromptu swing dancing. Those wacky, unpredictable physicists! What's next, cosmological karaoke?
An unsuspecting passerby might have been pardoned for concluding that the physicists had simply cracked from all the pressure of three full days spent juggling 15 different parallel technical sessions on everything from superfluidity and evolutionary dynamics to exotic nanostructures. But singing songs about physics is a long, time-honored tradition that originated -- where else? -- in England. At least that's what singalong organizer Walter Smith says, and I'm not one to argue the point. Smith is a physics professor at Haverford College who runs what he describes as the premiere online collection of physics songs in the world. (Jen-Luc Piquant somewhat snidely points out that it may very well be the only such collection. But she'd be wrong.)
I was fascinated to learn that the illustrious 19th century physicist James Clerk Maxwell -- author of the famous wave equations for light -- also composed alternate lyrics to the then-familiar folk song "Comin' Through the Rye," substituting the meeting of two young lovers with a rumination on the physics of collisions. By the early 20th century, Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory had made singalongs a tradition of their winter holiday parties, with participants like J.J. Thomson (who discovered the electron in 1897 and snagged a Nobel Prize for his trouble) standing on chairs and singing parodies at the top of their lungs. One assumes that copious pints of beer were involved, an element that was distinctly lacking at the APS event. That might have been a good thing. As my friend James Riordon (the guitarist for the evening) put it, "You really need to have your wits about you when you're trying to sing about electromagnetism."
Before he achieved national fame for his satirical ditties, Tom Lehrer was a physics grad student at Harvard, where he penned an entire musical show called The Physical Revue. In-joke alert: the title parodies a leading physics journal, The Physical Review. There's even an accompanying animation available online for Lehrer's classic "The Elements," whose lyrics are nothing more than a clever recitation of the periodic table. (I nicked -- or "gacked," if you will -- the link from Angela Gunn's TechSpace blog at USA Today. I was hugely flattered to find my own nascent blog mentioned there a couple of days ago. Fortunately, I have lots of good friends standing by, ready to puncture any spontaneous ego-inflation and nip self-importance in the bud. Jen-Luc Piquant, however, is demanding her own luxury Cyber-dressing room and a host of new designer outfits, claiming "her public" mustn't be disappointed.)
Physicists naturally revere Tom Lehrer, and are always on the lookout for an heir apparent. Smith himself penned most of the songs featured at Wednesday's singalong, including "The Love Song of the Electric Field" (sung to the tune of "Loch Lomond"). It's a rare individual who can make a song about an electric field and a magnetic field, united in an electromagnetic wave, almost, well, touching.
Taking a somewhat sassier approach is "Physics Chanteuse" Lynda Williams. She's been performing her "Cosmic Cabaret" all over the place for years, shimmying around the stage in a low-cut black cocktail dress while crooning "Carbon is a Girl's Best Friend" -- and inexplicably incurring the wrath of several female physicists who feel her act is "inappropriate" and demeaning to women scientists. The men, not surprisingly, have no such misgivings. I've never understood the objections myself -- what, a woman scientist can't be funny and sexy, as well as smart? (Note to self: file away for a future rant.)
My own forays into science singalongs have been few and far between. Quite often, a surplus of margaritas are behind the lapse in judgment, although who can resist the timeless appeal of Monty Python's "Galaxy Song," or They Might Be Giants crooning, "The sun is a mass of incandescent gas..." -- not to mention the entire "Schoolhouse Rock" oeuvre? Still, you're far more likely to catch me bumping and grinding (and sometimes air-guitaring) in front of the bathroom mirror to the dulcet tones of The Dandy Warhols or The Tragically Hip, while my cat stares balefully from her perch du jour.
I think the silly-physics-song tradition is kind of sweet. Wednesday's singalong provided a much-needed breather to the nonstop onslaught of technical data, which can lead to the dreaded "March meeting hangover" in the uninitiated, or faint of heart. Physicists may be a bit tedious at times when it comes to the minutiae of their research, but from a big-picture standpoint, they're pursuing the most elusive secrets of our universe. If Wednesday night's festivities are any indication, they're doing it with a silly physics song in their hearts.