The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

In a few weeks, hadrons are going to smash into each other at immense speeds after having raced around a 27 kilometre round circuit below French and Swiss soil. Physicists at CERN, the European Council for Nuclear Research, are eagerly anticipating the fallout - possible Higgs bosons, unravelling dark matter, and possibly creating a few microscopic black holes.

This last possibility has raised legal and bloggal hackles around the world. What if the black holes swallow up the planet? Theoretically, this is very unlikely - microscopic holes are evanescent, unlike the supermassive ones that dot the universe. But physicists are not very good at explaining the theory to the laity, which naturally makes them suspect in the eyes of the public.

Decades of pop culture portraying scientists as mad hasn't helped either.

In order to dispel the view of stratospheric (and slightly autistic) detachment of high-energy physicists, a few of them have hired Charna Halpern, doyenne of the famous Chicago school of improv kings, to help them think on their feet and wisecrack their way into public adoration when the media frenzy starts shortly. (Check out this story in yesterday's Wall Street Journal.)

Naturally, most of the jocose content among geeks has to do with jargon. Consider this one:

One atom says to another: "Damn, I've lost an electron."
Second atom: "Are you sure?"
First atom: "I'm positive."

Or, and here it gets exciting:

A neutron walks into a bar and orders a drink. When it attempts to pay, the bartender says: "For you, no charge."


What did the neutrino say to the planet Earth? "Just passing through."

It gets increasingly risque. In an attempt to riff off each other, Charna arranged the physicists in twos, and had them wisecrack. One woman said to her blushing male partner:

"Do my bosons give you a hadron?"

This is not to say, though, that jokes in Physics (or in the other hard sciences) are a recent phenomenon. Pick up the Journal of Irreproducible Results, and every page is a joke of subtlety and nuance. The lovely set of books titled A Random Walk in Science was a compendium of some of the best humour that came out of the sciences.

Q: How did the chemist survive the famine?
A: By subsisting on titrations.

Sigh. Entropy isn't what it used to be.


??! said...

What a wonderful story. And they're right, it's much needed too, public-facade wise.

I still don't trust them not to let the machines take over though.

Fëanor said...

??!: I agree. But the age of big science may be drawing to a close. There's an article in today's FT that the billions spent on the collider in CERN is probably the last bit of money to be spent on such arcane study. Once again, it is incumbent on the scientists to explain the value of such research in plain terms, otherwise the public just won't stand for it.

Veena said...

You surely have seen this?

I think Luddo had the link up sometime ago.

??! said...

Maybe the comedy classes came a bit too late. Don't you just love the headline, though?

Fëanor said...

Veena: Nope, haven't seen that. Thanks.

??!: Thanks for the link. Trust that geek paper to put things in perspective with some candid language, eh? Too bad the idiots won't be reading it.

Post a Comment