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« i hear the cosmos singing | Main | a coupla physicists sittin' around talkin' »


Well said, when I tire of blogs this type of pointless negativity is usually the reason, then again it is easy to ignore most times...and then you can be rewarded by occasionally finding gems like the interesting story about Turok and his initiative.

I just have to give a shout out for the Spiro Agnew reference. You don't often get a good Spiro Agnew reference these days.


The whole time I was in the professional physics world, from grad school, I felt like too many of the people there too themselves far too seriously. Not that we shouldn't take ourselves seriously, for we believe that what we're doing is worth doing and worth investing resources in. But to refuse to joke or chuckle around just a little bit? Too often I wanted to scream "everybody get over yourselves!" (Instead, I ran screaming.)

In grad school, it was when another grad student was doing Fabry Perot imaging, and putt the word "Ross" in his title and crossed it out. (This was during the 1992 election season.) A prof told him that that was undignified and he shouldn't do it. (For the lunchtime talk of just IR and submm profs.) Sigh. Or it was the fact that I *always* felt like I had to hide the things I did and put energy into outside of work, because I always saw grad students and professors saying that somebody "had too much time on their hands" if they did something active that wasn't physics. (Interestingly, the culture somehow exempted some things from that criticism, such as attending (but not acting in!) plays or doing sporting events. But let people find out that you run a website, or even just read non-highfalutin SF novels, and "you've got too much time on your hands.")

At the AAS some years ago, it was when Greg Henry gave his talk about the RECONS project, and started with a very fun little bit using the Mission Impossible theme, and him running around the auditorium with a trenchcoat and spyglass and pointing at people on his team scattered about through the audience who held up signs naming many of the stars in the Solar Neighborhood. Great fun, only about 5 minutes long, and got us all charged up and interested for his talk. But, of course, I overheard some grey beards waggling afterwards about how this was a serious scientific meeting, not some circus where we should all be yuking about and such.

Geez! Get over yourselves!

Jennifer O., I thought the youtube video was totally darling!! They are adorable, and who could forget the bongo drum playing Feynman, and all the people I know, including me, who find that things like music and dancing and painting can all add to your creativity and ability to come up with new ideas in science....I think it is best to work like mad, play like hell, and let the naysayers enjoy their cup of bitter van Gogh said, life is so short that there is not time to both argue and act...thanks for the link to the AIMS program, I've just signed up on their email list, it sounds like an awesome program...say hi to beautiful Santa Barbara for me...

So I had already written half of this comment and have to do it again. Why? Because I decided to delete one line and tried to find out how to delete a whole line with one keystroke while the cursor is on the back of the line. It isn't Ctrl+<--, it isn't Ctrl+Shift+<--, and Ctrl+Alt+<--, well, restarts the X-Server in Linux. So, that was stereotypical physicist (a computer scientist would either know the combination, or mostly, don't care). Serves my point that I don't understand the outcry about Big Bang Theory either. I think the show's fantastic, and often blushed when I detected glimpses of my former student ego. Yes, the characters are exaggerated but so was Niles Crane, and did anyone complain (Probably...).

Besides that, for the average physicist progress is soooo sloooowww. One works weeks on a step, that from a greater prespective is still infinitesimally small and probably was done by 1900 other scientists already. At least in my head, there's creative mass building up and complaining that it needs to get out, so really - several outlets are needed for that. I try some, but more in a chaotic or mind-numbing way (no, not excessive amounts of beer, more like stupid little computer games). I think I have to reorder them and dedicate them as my creative outlet as support to my work.

Well said! I sure can relate!

Hi Jennifer,

A correction: AIMS was founded in Muizenberg, South Africa, not "Wuizenberg" (which, to the best of my knowledge, doesn't exist). Muizenberg is a lovely little town south of Cape Town.

- joe

Joerg, I agree, Big Bang Theory was (is?) a lot of fun. It pokes fun of geeks in a way that skates reasonably close to my college apartment. Enough that I laugh in recognition pretty often.

Fun stuff.

OK, I'm with you on the "pointless negativity" thing, and I post enough silly stuff on my blog that I doubt I could ever pass for a guy who takes himself seriously, but this bit here makes me want to play the game of One Thing Here Doesn't Belong:

"It's very disheartening when there is a sudden wave of collective sourness that reinforces the (false) stereotype of physicists as dour, humorless buzzkills. This sort of thing does far more to damage the public perception of physicists than The Big Bang Theory, Talk Like a Physicist Day, silly YouTube videos, or March Meeting physics singalongs combined ever could."

. . . except that, maybe, more people watch **The Big Bang Theory** than read physics blogs.

I mean, isn't this what we science bloggers stay up at night, fretting about? The people who read our writing online are, to a first approximation, the people who are already interested in science. The same goes for the people who attend Cafe Scientifique or go out of their way to TiVo Clifford Johnson whenever he appears on The History Channel. The people we want to reach are the ones watching prime-time TV, not the ones who have already junked the Tube in favor of the Intertubes!

Rather than complaining about the mass media "reinforcing negative stereotypes", I'll try to describe the problem in my own way: almost every time I see a scientist or a mathematician portrayed on the silver screen, I get a sense of lost opportunities. Movies like **Pi** and **A Beautiful Mind** and **Proof** come so close to provoking a genuine interest in what mathematicians do, and yet they fall at the last hurdle.


Great story about Turok. Small point: Those are my juniors being silly in the Youtube video -- I posted their video on my blog 'cos I thought it was great they don't take themselves too seriously, and Chad's subsequent comment about too little homework was surely surely surely also tongue in cheek.

Arjendu: I wasn't actually referring to Chad: I've met Chad, like him tremendously, and know full well what his sense of humor is like. I knew he was being tongue-in-cheek. When I said "everywhere I turned" there was negativity, I meant literally EVERYWHERE -- not just online in the blogosphere, but in my personal emails, via telephone, in the actual "meat world" -- you name it. The same remark was made to me, twice, via email and in person, in all seriousness, alas... which is so, sooooo silly. Tell your pals I LOVED their YouTube video, and they will be the coolest physicists ever when they embark on their careers if they manage to hang onto their sense of play (as opposed to getting it crushed out of them by Da Man). :)

Blake, see above comment re: my experiences not being limited to the blogosphere. The fact that everyone seems to assume this is telling in itself. We love ya, buddy, love the "blag" and your wicked sense of humor, but must remind you to repeat this mantra: "It's fiction, it's fiction, it's fiction." And what appeals to you is probably not going to be the same thing that appeals to "the masses."While TBBT or Pi or Proof or A Beautiful Mind might fall short of YOUR expectations, it could indeed turn someone onto science or math. Or not. That's really not the point of such shows, you know. TV is about selling entertainment. Ideally, we'd like it to be intelligent, with a reasonable amount of verisimilitude, but these are not documentaries, and trying to inject didacticism invariably kills the joy. At least such things entrench in their minds the notion that physics and math are trendy enough to warrant being featured on TV and film.

We had a great workshop on Friday (audio/video is now up at the KITP Website), and I'll address this very issue in-depth in a future post (as soon as I have time to write it, which, frankly, will not be for at least a week). For now I'll just say this (somewhat incoherently, as I just got off a plane): It is not the job of Hollywood to "correct" negative stereotypes. Hollywood is trying to sell a product and thus it will REFLECT whatever appeals to the largest market share. When public attitudes change, then we'll start seeing the shows follow suit. Case in point: we've started seeing more gay and lesbian characters on TV, both cable and network, far from the most desired portrayals, and certainly not reflective of the actual gay/lesbian community at large, but it's telling that our society has advanced to the point where it is now acceptable to have TV characters that are likeable and at least nominally gay. [I don't think we ever saw Will on WILL AND GRACE do more than an occasional polite dinner date; poor guy NEVER got any action.]

How do we change society at large? We can start by interacting more with it. Blogs are a start, but Blake is right: often we're "preaching to the converted." There's really no substitute for getting out into the "real world" and interacting directly: bringing folks to visit campus, the lab, one's office, etc. One of the best things about David Saltzberg's involvement with THE BIG THEORY (he's the technical consultant, and a physicist at UCLA), is that he brings the writers, actors, wardrobe and prop people to campus to see actual physics labs, and every week he brings a special physics guest to meet everyone backstage. [I've had this privilege, and it's a really terrific group of people. If they're poking fun at geeks and physicists, they're doing so out of genuine affection.] The reason there are no lab coats, and why the occasional lab scenes use old rundown equipment, is precisely the result of those visits, which directly countered the mental stereotypes, with a real payoff: no lab coats on TBBT.

Change happens slowly, and so gradually that we might not even be aware it's happening. But it is...

Sure, it's fiction. "Versimilitude", in the narrow sense, isn't even what I care about. (Most days of my life would make terrible TV, and I'll be the first to admit it.) But one of the funny things about art is its multiplicity, the ability for one thing to be appreciated at multiple levels. Grown-ups and children alike read the Harry Potter books, for example, and get different things out of them.

Perhaps I'm simply deluded in thinking that more could be done with the sort of cinematic and televisual experiments people have tried so far.

Jennifer: Bien Merci! I'll pass the comments on to my students. They're currently suffering through a nasty take-home, so this might cheer them up.

In passing, may I note that my honey is a Lit/Cultural Studies person who has actually written an academic article on Buffy for fame and fortune, such as it is in academia, so when I stumbled across your book it was a personally kinda interesting moment? And yes, I purchased a copy immediately.


You asked if more could be done. Well of course more could be done. If everything could be as smart and as entertaining as Jennifer's works the world would be a much better place. But most things fall short, and TBBT does as well. But what it gets right is playing off the stereotypes without being mean, and without making the physicists super- or sub-human. He's a geek, but he does create sexual tension with the hot girl. He's a nerd but he's not hapless. In half a generation he'll be the ancestor of a character who is a geek-in-full: one who heats his soup with is lab's laser, but who also is the best volleyball player on campus (I almost chose racquetball, but it seems to me that the computer engineers are racquetball players and the physicists are the volleyballers).

Does anyone know what Lee Smolin (co-founder of Perimeter Institute for theoretical physics) is up to now-a-days? I'd kind of like to get in touch with him. Am posting everywhere, so as to spread the question as wide as possible. Thanks.

I think the astronomers have the physicists beat for amusing YouTube videos:

I love your blog! Americans are down on science because it scares them out of religious superstitions. That is a big reason for stereotypes and pessimism.

fascinating blog. i really like it. there's something i've been wondering about and i was hoping someone here might help me out. okay, so when lightning strikes a body of water (ocean, lake etc.) do the living entities nearby die of electrocution (because water conducts electricity), and if not, why?

You got one mean looking kitty on this page of yours!!!

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    Physics Cocktails

    • Heavy G
      The perfect pick-me-up when gravity gets you down.
      2 oz Tequila
      2 oz Triple sec
      2 oz Rose's sweetened lime juice
      7-Up or Sprite
      Mix tequila, triple sec and lime juice in a shaker and pour into a margarita glass. (Salted rim and ice are optional.) Top off with 7-Up/Sprite and let the weight of the world lift off your shoulders.
    • Listening to the Drums of Feynman
      The perfect nightcap after a long day struggling with QED equations.
      1 oz dark rum
      1/2 oz light rum
      1 oz Tia Maria
      2 oz light cream
      Crushed ice
      1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
      In a shaker half-filled with ice, combine the dark and light rum, Tia Maria, and cream. Shake well. Strain into an old fashioned glass almost filled with crushed ice. Dust with the nutmeg, and serve. Bongos optional.
    • Combustible Edison
      Electrify your friends with amazing pyrotechnics!
      2 oz brandy
      1 oz Campari
      1 oz fresh lemon juice
      Combine Campari and lemon juice in shaker filled with cracked ice. Shake and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Heat brandy in chafing dish, then ignite and pour into glass. Cocktail Go BOOM! Plus, Fire = Pretty!
    • Hiroshima Bomber
      Dr. Strangelove's drink of choice.
      3/4 Triple sec
      1/4 oz Bailey's Irish Cream
      2-3 drops Grenadine
      Fill shot glass 3/4 with Triple Sec. Layer Bailey's on top. Drop Grenadine in center of shot; it should billow up like a mushroom cloud. Remember to "duck and cover."
    • Mad Scientist
      Any mad scientist will tell you that flames make drinking more fun. What good is science if no one gets hurt?
      1 oz Midori melon liqueur
      1-1/2 oz sour mix
      1 splash soda water
      151 proof rum
      Mix melon liqueur, sour mix and soda water with ice in shaker. Shake and strain into martini glass. Top with rum and ignite. Try to take over the world.
    • Laser Beam
      Warning: may result in amplified stimulated emission.
      1 oz Southern Comfort
      1/2 oz Amaretto
      1/2 oz sloe gin
      1/2 oz vodka
      1/2 oz Triple sec
      7 oz orange juice
      Combine all liquor in a full glass of ice. Shake well. Garnish with orange and cherry. Serve to attractive target of choice.
    • Quantum Theory
      Guaranteed to collapse your wave function:
      3/4 oz Rum
      1/2 oz Strega
      1/4 oz Grand Marnier
      2 oz Pineapple juice
      Fill with Sweet and sour
      Pour rum, strega and Grand Marnier into a collins glass. Add pineapple and fill with sweet and sour. Sip until all the day's super-positioned states disappear.
    • The Black Hole
      So called because after one of these, you have already passed the event horizon of inebriation.
      1 oz. Kahlua
      1 oz. vodka
      .5 oz. Cointreau or Triple Sec
      .5 oz. dark rum
      .5 oz. Amaretto
      Pour into an old-fashioned glass over (scant) ice. Stir gently. Watch time slow.