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Philosophy, sociology and religion

Philosophy, sociology and religion

The best physics humour ever

03 Dec 2003 Robert P Crease

Robert P Crease selects the funniest jokes about physics and physicists from his readers' poll

Three months ago I asked readers of Physics World to contribute samples of new physics jokes, fresh forms of physics wit, or cases of “found humour” in physics (see “So you think physics is funny?”). I received about 200 replies, including jokes in several languages, stories, Photoshop creations, video clips and links to science cartoon databases.

I was also contacted by a representative of BBC Radio Five Live, who claimed to be interested in having me talk about physics humour late one night. My subsequent negative experience – I hope nobody was awake to hear it – illustrates an important lesson about science humour.

Outsiders don’t get it

When I was first hooked up, the show’s host Dotun Adebayo was finishing a segment on dirty bombs, treating the expert being interviewed with deference and respect. When that concluded, he said something like: “And now for something completely different!” That should have alerted me that I was bring set up.

Adebayo retold some jokes from my column in Physics World – accompanied by a conspicuously too-loud laugh track – then asked me to explain the jokes. Stupidly, I complied. Too late, it dawned on me that while some aspects of science, such as safety and health, are sacred to outsiders, other parts are simply targets for ridicule. Professional humour is one. The point of the programme was to laugh, not at jokes, but at physicists for their supposedly mechanical and cerebral wit.

The lesson was that I should have resisted. Being jousted, I should have jousted back – perhaps with the aid of a simple jest. “I can’t explain these jokes to you, Dotun, they’re only for smart people!” I should have said. “But try this one: did you hear about the restaurant NASA is starting on the Moon? Great food, no atmosphere! Still with me, Dotun? Shall I slow down?” (Thanks to Larry Bays from the Los Alamos National Laboratory for that joke.)

My Five Live experience reminded me of two other cases of comedians appropriating professional humour. One is a recent New Yorker article in which Woody Allen couches everyday anxiety-provoking experiences (being late for work, trying to seduce someone) in language borrowed from physics. A typical sentence runs: “I could feel my coupling constant invade her weak field as I pressed my lips to her wet neutrinos.” Allen lumbers across a whole page in this meant-to-be-cute vein. Don’t abandon that film career, Woody.

The other comedian to have tackled professional humour is Steve Martin, who tells his audience that he has worked up a joke about wrenches because a convention of plumbers is in town that night. The punchline, when it eventually comes, is: “It says sprocket, not socket!” When the supposedly expected guffaws fail to materialize, Martin feigns puzzlement. “Were those plumbers supposed to be here this show?” he asks. Now that brings laughs.

These episodes illustrate a mixture of ways in which outsiders can appropriate the technical vocabulary of a profession for humorous purposes. Allen uses the poetic suggestiveness of technical terms (coupling, weak field and so on) for good-natured fun; his sentences do not make sense if you are an insider and go only by the words. Martin makes fun out of our not being insiders and not understanding the words. Radio Five Live made fun of the insiders themselves: the fact that they do understand the words. Humour, anthropologists tell us, is a flexible tool for managing the social environment. It can be used to draw people in by sharing, to keep people away by intimidating, to build charisma, to impress, to entertain, to relieve tension, to test and challenge oneself and others. But it is an especially useful tool in science, and particularly physics, precisely because it engages, fosters and celebrates the same values that the field itself depends on – namely cleverness, play and imagination. These qualities were abundantly in evidence in the submissions I received. I have the space to retell only a few, and even those I will have to abbreviate.

Many of the jokes were jests, which take us unexpectedly into another dimension of meaning where the actual content and logic of the transition is of no interest.

Puns – references to getting Bohr’d, fission chips and the like – are an example of this kind of humour, as are the quirky names that physicists often given things. Joy Hathaway of Fermilab, for example, recalled a softball team called the Unified Fielders from her postgraduate days, as well as a sextet of roommates called the Six-Fold Degenerates.

Sometimes this kind of play involves symbols. Bobby Morris, an undergraduate at Leicester University, explained to me that he found the elements of magnetic flux hard to understand because they dφ common-sense.

On other occasions the play takes more conventional forms, such as when two atoms bump into each other:
“I think I’ve lost an electron!” says one.
“Are you sure?” replies the other.
“I’m positive!”

Jests are silly, and some of the silliest are shaggy-dog stories. One, which Warwick undergraduate Philip Ryder claims was “the worst joke in the entire history of the universe”, involves a quantum-mechanical observable who wanders into an auction preview. As he cannot speak the language well, he is assisted by translators from exotic countries, including one called Hermitia. His attention is attracted by a particular item, but various commitments make it impossible for him to attend the auction itself. En route we are treated to crude puns, including someone saying “Eigenvalue this for you!”. If told in full, the story would go on for pages, detailing various complex arrangements for him to bid via telephone. I will spare you the entire joke, even though the power of the final release – “I must be represented by a Hermitian operator!” – arises from enduring the details, which you will have to reinvent when retelling this.

The humour of all such jests depends on the way the language thrusts us unexpectedly into a different dimension of meaning than the one we assumed we were in. Amitabha Chakrabarti, a theorist at the Ecole Polytechnique in Palaiseau, France, told a story that makes explicit this unexpected transition. “Do you know that Hausdorff published poems?” a colleague asked him.
“Oh,” Chakrabarti replied, “he had another dimension!”

Witnessing two nearby colleagues bent over with laughter at this straight line, Chakrabarti realized that the humour arose from the fact that “through decades they have associated two words – Hausdorff dimension – only in a special context”, and that this remark provided an unexpected new dimension for “dimension”.

But the winner in the jest category – for sheer absurdity, economy, and unexpectedness – was submitted by David Herzog of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign:
“What’s new?”
“E over h.”

In jokes proper, where the quality of humour is not silly but comic, the content plays a more important role in the transition to the unexpected dimension. An entire genre of jokes, for instance, involves the uncertainty principle. A dozen people sent me versions of a joke in which Heisenberg is pulled over for speeding:
“Do you know how fast you were going?” the police officer asks, incredulously.
“No,” replies Heisenberg, “but I know exactly where I am!”

In other jokes the content is more about physicists than physics; their supposed unworldliness, for example. Another dozen people submitted versions of the story in which a physicist is recruited to improve the performance of a racehorse, the milk capacity of a cow, or the egg productivity of a chicken. The punchline is always some variant of: “Assume a spherical animal in a vacuum…”

Other jokes centre around physicists’ obsessive love for their work. The basic version of one runs as follows. A physicist, who has spent the evening out, is caught by his wife trying to sneak into his house early the next morning. Saying that he has something to confess, he tells of meeting a woman in a bar, drinking too much and winding up going home with her. “You shit,” his wife screams, “you’ve been working late in the lab again!”

Ruth Hamilton of The Yorkhill NHS Trust told an amusing variant in which a lawyer, an accountant and a physicist are discussing, over a beer, whether life is better with a wife or with a girlfriend.
“A wife is better,” declares the lawyer, “because of the family support and the help she’ll be to your career.”
“Nonsense,” says the accountant. “A girlfriend is better: you can keep your independence and go out with your friends more.”
They turn to the physicist, who says, “It’s better to have both. That way, the wife thinks you’re with the girlfriend, the girlfriend thinks you’re with the wife, and meanwhile you can be down at the lab!”

And four postgraduate students from Bristol and Oxford – David Leigh, Gavin Morley, Denzil Rodrigues and Jamie Walker – evidently had a surplus of time and imagination during last year’s QUIPROCONE quantum-computing conference in Dublin. One evening they challenged each other to come up with jokes that begin with “So Alice and Bob walk into this bar…”, referring to the two familiar characters whose entanglements are used to illustrate various points in quantum cryptography.

Of the dozens they sent me, the one that made me laugh the hardest had Alice and Bob flirting, then getting more and more intimate, before finally – and as this is evidently a family magazine I was censored and you’ll have to supply the explicit content yourself – seeming to perform two incompatible sexual acts simultaneously. This puzzles the barman, who cannot make out exactly what they are doing.
“What’s going on?” he says to the house drunk. “I can’t quite see it – it looks brilliant but it doesn’t make any sense.”
“Yeah,” the drunk sighs wistfully, “it’s a super position.”

Found humour

But my favourite category of physics humour is found humour. The phrase is analogous to “found art”, in that it refers to humour that is not produced intentionally but stumbled on unexpectedly. This type of humour can be ambivalent or subtle, as illustrated by the following examples.

One, proposed by Chakrabarti, illustrates a subgenre of found humour that consists of serious remarks by would-be science interpreters. The French philosopher and urbanist Paul Virilio once described a quantum-mechanical representation as “a sum of observables that are flickering back and forth” – though, to be fair, his English translators appear to be co-conspirators in this amusing sentence. Chakrabarti noted that while the conjured-up image of frantic suburban commuters dashing from one destination to another is comic – to a physicist it involves a sudden and unexpected shift into another meaning dimension – the lack of understanding involved is “no longer funny, not at all”.

The other example of found humour, proposed by US presidential science advisor John Marburger, is the cosmological constant. The term was introduced by Einstein in his equations of general relativity to express the rate at which the universe expands. The admittedly refined humour lies not in the constant itself, Marburger explained, but in the absurdly large discrepancy – some 50-100 orders of magnitude – between its measured value and its value as estimated by the best and most comprehensive theories. “It’s as if nature were thumbing its nose at science – like suddenly depositing a mermaid or the Loch Ness monster in a biology lab.”

The critical point

What surprised me, though, was how guilty many of the respondents felt about telling and enjoying these jokes, calling them “trivial”, “dumb” or designed to make the joke-teller feel “intellectually superior”. It was as if those who enjoyed these jokes were afraid of having to endure the Five Live treatment by others, or by their own super egos.

But in a field that uses imagination and play to disclose new truths about nature, the trivial and the true, the fanciful and the factual can be momentarily indistinguishable, frequently giving its practitioners the experience of unexpectedly winding up in new dimensions of meaning. The ability to practise both physics and humour are thus intimately connected – “entangled”, you might say – inseparably bound up together in a common and deep-lying origin.

Certain outsiders may resent or be disturbed by the thought that a group of people make a living essentially by playing, and be inclined to make fun of it. But thriving humour in physics – in all its various forms and range of purposes – testifies, not to its narrow-mindedness or superficiality, but rather to its vitality and depth. Only misguided simple pictures of science as a purely logical process relegate humour to the exterior of the scientific enterprise.

Don’t be defensive. Laugh loudly and proudly. With respect to the rest of your work, it’s not completely different.

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