Wednesday, April 20, 2011

James Clerk Maxwell

I was cleaning out my iTunes today, and I found this recording of myself reading a speech I gave about James Clerk Maxwell last year. (I recorded it in order to be able to listen to it and memorize it that way.) I thought it seemed suitable for Strangely Charming.

Click on the "Play" button (the one with the triangle) to hear it. Enjoy!
Physics forever,

Monday, April 18, 2011

And then there was George Gamow

Gamow was almost a proto-Feynman, famous for his physics practical jokes. (An example: He once sabotaged Pauli's chair at a conference simply so he could yell "Pauli effect"! The "Pauli effect" was supposed to be that whenever a theorist, especially Pauli, started working with experimental equipment, the equipment would promptly break. One experimentalist friend of Pauli's refused to let him in the lab. This same friend owned a large wooden hammer, with which he would threaten his apparatus when it wasn't working. Everyone laughed -- until somebody "borrowed" the hammer and the apparatus promptly ceased to function. There was another physicist who brought his apparatus flowers every morning.)

Gamow was Russian. In 1932, he and his wife decided that they would rather like to move abroad. The authorities were not quite so fond of this idea as were the Gamows. To make a long story short, they decided to defect. By kayak.

Brilliant, no? Mr. and Mrs. Gamow planned to hop in their boat and paddle across to Finland. Or Turkey. Yes, they tried to defect by kayak twice. Both times they failed -- not because they were caught, but because of the weather. It was raining.

So in 1933 they chose a more, let's say, traditional approach. Gamow applied for permission to attend a prestigious conference in Brussels, the Solvay Conference. He recieved it, they went to Brussels -- and they never did come back. Eventually they moved to America. So it was a happy ending, but in the process it involved two separate attempts to defect from the Soviet Union by kayak.

This only confirms my suspicion that, well, physicists can be weird.

Another Dirac story

Again, true. He was an interesting person.

Heisenberg and Dirac are at a party.

Dirac: Heisenberg, why do you dance at parties?

Heisenberg [a bit baffled]: Well, the ladies are nice.

[a few minutes later] Dirac: How do you know they're nice before you dance with them?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Physics Humor

Inspired by last post, here are a few gems from my archive of physics humor. If you happen to have any to share, please post them in the comments! I would love to hear them!

To start off, a terrible pun.

What does a physicist eat with soup? Quarkers.


Now for some variety: a rather terrible visual pun.

And this one is one of the best of a whole category of jokes, "The Mathematician, the Physicist, and the Engineer [and sometimes the Sociologist]," in which the mathematician is technically correct but ridiculously precise, the physicist is focused on the real world but the wrong part of the real world, the engineer is relentlessly practical, and the sociologist, if present, is vague, over-general, and not very scientific:

A mathematician, a physicist, a sociologist, and an engineer are traveling by train into Scotland. They see a brown cow. “Oh look,” says the sociologist, “Scottish cows are brown.” “No, no,” replies the physicist, “we perceive one of the cows in Scotland to be brown.” “You're both wrong,” replies the mathematician, shaking his head at his friends' muddled reasoning. “There is at least one cow in Scotland, of which at least one side appears to be brown.” “Oh, who cares?” asks the engineer. “Let's get out and milk the cow.”

Another MP&E[&S] (hey, that sounded like an IT abbreviation -- wonder if any of these involve computer scientists) joke, this time without the sociologist:

A mathematician, a physicist, and an engineer are staying in a hotel (perhaps the Hotel Infinity?). The physicist gets up in the middle of the night and sees a fire in the hall. Rubbing his chin, he concocts a method for manufacturing carbon dioxide from the nearby bucket of water to use in a makeshift fire extinguisher. While he's thinking, the engineer smells smoke, runs out, and dumps the bucket of water on the fire, effectively putting it out. In the morning, they discuss the events of the night with the mathematician. “Did you see the fire?” asks the physicist. “Oh, yes,” replies the mathematician, “I saw it before either of you did.” “Then why didn't you put it out?” says the engineer. The mathematician explains, “Well, there was a fire and a bucket of water – obviously a solution existed!”

An infinite number of mathematicians walk into a bar. "I want a pint of beer," says the first mathematician. "I'll have half of what he's having," says the second. "I'll have half of what he's having," says the third, and so all the way down, halving all the way. "OK," says the bartender, and gets two pints of beer. [Optional ending: "Separate tabs," say the mathematicians. An infinite number of mathematicians get thrown out of a bar.]

An infinite number of mathematicians walk into a bar. That's to be expected -- they never do watch where they're going. [Inspired by the joke, "Two men walk into a bar. The third one ducks."]

OK, enough walking into a bar jokes. They're not that great anyway, and besides, those are about mathematicians. Now for one that's true:

Physicist P.A.M. Dirac (he always used the initals) was famously untalkative. So much so, in fact, that his colleagues invented a unit of information flow – the dirac, equal to one word per hour.

Here's a one-word piece of physics-related humor: Feynman. If you've heard about his crazy escapades (say, picking all the locks at Los Alamos), you'll know why.

Physics forever,

"A Song of Speeds" - a poem which I composed

inspired by James Clerk Maxwell, of whose great discovery this year marks the 150th anniversary, and of whom this is a pale and clumsy imitation -- though he could never have written it, as it incorporates concepts of which he never heard, although his theory both underlies and inspired them

'Twas wrought by Relativity,
In year nineteen-oh-five;
The photon's swift velocity
By Einstein was derived:
'Tis thou, O great Celerity,
Thou maximum swiftness, glorious

Faster than thou no thing can go,
For thus runs the decree,
O speed of light in vacuo,
As anyone can see:
'Tis thou, O great Celerity,
Thou maximum swiftness, glorious c!

Traveling at two point nine
Times ten to pow'r of eight,
Light charges on in a straight line
Much much too fast to wait:
'Tis thou, O great Celerity,
Thou maximum swiftness, glorious c!

At such a pace there passeth not
The weeks or hours or days,
(Or, as the SI polyglots
Prefer, the seconds). So praise!
'Tis thou, O great Celerity,
Thou maximum swiftness, glorious c!

So gather 'round and sing the song
Of Light and of its Speed,
Which need and must be sung as long
As thou reciev'st thy meed:
'Tis thou, O great Celerity,
Thou maximum swiftness, glorious c!

And as a postscript, another piece of physics humor.
Somebody asks Heisenberg, "Speaking not as a physicist, not in your professional or professorial capacity, but simply as a human being like all the rest of us, what do you really think of quantum mechanics?"
Heisenberg replies, "I'm uncertain."