Sunday, November 08, 2009

Urban Physics Myths

Stefan and I, we had a good laugh at the LHC baguette. I've been wondering whether the PR department made it up to entertain us while waiting. For the next filler, how about the technician who hung his coat on the regulator for the server-room AC and caused a total system breakdown?

The baguette also brought to mind incidents of beer bottles that occasionally appear in beam pipes, and made me scratch my head about other frequently told physics stories. You know, stories of the sort that typically happened to a friend of a friend.

There is for example the story about the postdoc who got scurvy by living from Snickers and Coke out of vending machines for several months. In some cases, it's pizza and Coke instead. In one version said postdoc was located at Fermilab, in another version at Brookhaven. Nobody ever met that postdoc.

Another story that I've heard in several versions circulates around the organizer of an Italian summer school who we don't want to name for his alleged mafia connections. You see, as the story goes, one of the speakers had his bag stolen at the airport. Mentioning this to the organizer, the bag promptly reappeared the next day. In other versions it's been several pieces of baggage, a purse, or a car. The summer school and the organizer remained the same.

Then there's the story of the student who, in a case of utter frustration, adds a sentence to his thesis offering whoever reads this a beer. Needless to say, the thesis gets accepted and printed with the beer-offer. The conditional statement "if and only if Mike's dog really ate his frog," that Eric Weinstein mentioned is a variation on that theme of the not-even-reading advisor.

Add your story in the comments!


  1. Well, here's one story I like to tell, and I can't quite remember whether it actually happened to a friend or not:
    So my friend was tutoring a math class for chemistry majors. The students had to complete exercises:
    for x -> 0, x^-8 -> infinity
    So then what's the limit of x^-5 ?
    A horizontal 5. That's some logical thinking.

  2. Hi Bee,

    I enjoyed all of those seemingly incredibly preposterous physics stories and wished I had one that I could offer up. The closest I can come is a story told by J.S. Bell, resultant of his attempt in a paper to explain the difference between the limit of classical result when entangled states are considered and that in the Quantum Mechanical case. He uses an analogy with introducing a character he calls Dr. Bertlmann, who has the strange habit of always wearing different coloured socks. Despite this appearing as being simply a creation of his imagination, it turns out to be instead a statement of fact, as there truly is a Dr, Bertlmann who did wear different coloured socks.

    It’s been reported that when he first found out about the paper he wasn’t at first very pleased with Bell that his unusual habit was reported for all to see. However since then, not only has his position mellowed, yet rather he now likes to be known as that strange Professor with a total lack of fashion sense. So at least this is one example, where no matter how unbelievable the story there may still be some truth to be found :-)



  3. Not really a myth, but something that makes me laugh. This is a statement of originality from a physics PhD thesis:

    This work contains no material which has been accepted for the award of any other degree or diploma in any university or other tertiary institution and, to the best of my knowledge and belief, contains no material previously published or written by another person, except where due referene has been made in the text.
    I give consent to this copy of my thesis, when deposited in the University Library, being available for loan and photocopying, and further consent to it’s reproduction as a musical or theatrical work.

  4. My favorite take on the mob airport luggage story was that in its latter days Eastern Airlines noticed that its Miami hub had an incredibly low lost baggage rate. Seeking to discover what was happening in Miami and to duplicate it elsewhere, they found out that the local drug lords were also using Miami as a hub and Eastern aircraft, among others, for smuggling drugs into the country. No one dared steal a bag, or even careless about delivering a bag, lest they entail the drug lords wrath, and they could be pretty wrathy.

  5. In one of my favourite stories, the friend-of-friend of a distinguished older faculty member is crossing the quad one day, around noon, and sees Hans Bethe coming the other way. They meet in the middle and begin chatting. They're talking about research ideas so the discussion becomes animated and some minutes pass.

    Finally, the discussion winds down, and the two prepare to go their separate ways. Bethe looks briefly uncertain and asks, "Which way was I going?" His iterlocutor reminds him, upon which he sets off, jovially remarking, "Oh good, I've had lunch!"

  6. Unfortunately, the bird and baguette thing is no laughing matter. Refer to the following page for a still of the incident as well as the hash measures CERN will be implementing to prevent a repeat occurrence:


  7. Thanks everybody for your stories! We should do this more often, it lets my Monday start with a smile on my face :-)

  8. A graduate student from Peru came to study in Brazil at INPE (in São José dos Campos city), but when he arrived in the airport and took a taxi, a burglar came and stole his baggage and all the money he had. Fortunately, he was able to contact a researcher at INPE who helped him to arrive well at the instutue (and bought him a few items of immediate need).

    Despite the very unfortunate arrival in Brazil, which would upset any person, when that researcher came to receive the student at INPE's main entry, he noticed that the student did not seem to be upset or nervous at all, but seemed happy and in deep wonderment with the surroundings (in fact that institute has a very beautiful campus).

    Puzzled anyway by that behaviour, the researcher started a conversation and asked if he was enjoying Brazil, despite what happened. The student simply replied, "Paradise, it's paradise..."

    The researcher found that quite strange, and thought that that reaction could be some shock effect due to the recent unfortunate event.

    Latter on, we came to learn that, previously, that student worked at an observatory in Peru which, some years back, have been taken by force by the Cendero Luminoso. And the student was present at that event, which no doubt was much more terrifying than a "simple" encounter with a common burglar.

    I knew that student and that story, since I was also a student there at that time and he was a class mate. Later it turned out that that student had some unique behaviour anyway, but that's another story.

  9. Hi!

    A physicist and friend told me once the following story.
    He spoke with a medical student who told him that they're learning now the 3 laws of Ohm.
    He was a little bit surprised since he knew only one - Ohm's law.
    But sometimes a medical student can prove to teach a physicist in physics.
    Up to a permutation of the order the three Ohm's laws are:

    1) U=IR
    2) I=U/R
    3) R=U/I

    I would not be surprised to find them stated as above in a book "Physics for medical students"...

  10. Great stories around. I read this book Quips, Quotes, and Quanta by some professor at a university here in Ontario.

    The stories in it are quite funny and border on the physics urban myths. My favourite is the one involving Bohr, Einstein, and tobacco.


    ~ Luke

  11. Hi Bee,

    I regards to all this news about the LHC, its troubles and beer. Perhaps you should have a blog post where commenters (non anonymous) can state their positions as to finding the Higgs or creating a black hole, with those who are wrong having to buy those who are proven right a beer, or glass of wine if preferred. I’ll start you off with saying the Higgs will not be found or any black holes created. However I will predict that the LHC will have us discover something that none had anticipated which will have a profound effect on the nature of future theory.



  12. Phil: A good suggestion, but I believe there must have been dozens of such blogposts. Check CV or Tommaso's.

  13. Hi Bee,

    If there is included a chance for free beer I will definitely give them a look :-)



  14. If you're looking for someone to bet with Phil try Stephen Hawking. You'll have a 50/50 shot of winning. He's English and they'll bet on anything, and he's no exception. Susskind actually wrote a book about winning a bet with Hawking. Pfft! Who hasn't !? Try a more difficult problem, like Technicolor, Lenny!

    Hawking loses more bets than anyone because he makes more bets than anyone. Wins more too, therefore.

    And if you do win, Phil, insist on a six-pack of the German beer Warsteiner (the light pilsner one). Heaven in a bottle. Go quality, accept no substitutes.

    P.S. What is currently called the "Higgs Boson" is probably 3 different things, and we may find out when the LHC when it gets as high as 6 TeV in oh ... 2015 or so at the rate it's going. Maybe 2018. We'll see.

  15. Hi!

    One of my favourite stories is "The Barometer Story", written by a physics professor, Dr. Alexander Calandra of Washington University in St. Louis (I found it reprinted in Murray Gell-Mann's "The Quark and the Jaguar"):

    Some time ago, I received a call from a colleague who asked if I would be the referee on the grading of an examination question. It seemed that he was about to give a student a zero for his answer to a physics question, while the student claimed he should receive a perfect score and would do so if the system were not set up against the student. The instructor and the student agreed to submit this to an impartial arbiter, and I was selected....
    I went to my colleague's office and read the examination question, which was, "Show how it is possible to determine the height of a tall builidng with the aid of a barometer."
    The student's answer was, "Take the barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower the barometer to the street, and then bring it up, measuring the length of the rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building."
    Now this is a very interesting answer, but should the student get credit for it? I pointed out that the student really had a strong case for full credit, since he had answered the question completely and correctly. On the other hand, if full credit were given, it could well contribute to a high grade for the student in his physics course. A high grade is supposed to certify that the student knows some physics, but the answer to the question did not confirm this. With this in mind, I suggested that the student have another try at answering the question. I was not surprised that my colleague agreed to this, but I was surprised that the student did.
    Acting in terms of agreement, I gave the student six minutes to answer the question, with the warning that the answer should show some knowledge of physics. And the end of five minutes, he had not written anything.

  16. [story continued:]

    I asked if he wishes to give up, since I had another class to take care of, but he said no, he was not giving up, he had many answers to this problem, he was just thinking of the best one. I excused myself for interrupting him, and asked him to please go on. In the next minute he dashed off his answer, which was: "Take the barometer to the top of the building, and lean over the edge of the roof. Drop the barometer, timing its fall with a stopwatch. Then, using the formula S=1/2at^2 [distance fallen equals one-half the acceleration of gravity times the square of the time elapsed], calculate the height of the building".
    At this point I asked my colleague if he would give up. He conceded and I gave the student almost full credit. In leaving my colleague's office, I recalled that the student had said that he had other anwers to the problem, so I asked what they were.
    "Oh, yes," the student said. "There are many ways of getting the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer. For example, you could take the barometer out on a sunny day and measure the height of the barometer, the length of its shadow, and the length of the shadow of the building, and by the use of simple proportion, determine the height of the building."
    "Fine," I said. "And the others?"
    "Yes," said the student. "There is a very basic measurement that you will like. In this method, you take the barometer and begin to walk up the stairs. As you climb the stairs, you mark off the length and this will give you the height of the building in barometer units. A very direct method."
    "Of course, if you want a more sophisticated method, you can tie the barometer to the end of a string, swing it as a pendulum, and determine the value og g [the acceleration if gravity] at the street level and at the top of the building. From the difference between the two values of g, the height of the building can, in principle, be calculated."
    Finally, he concluded, "If you don't limit me to physics solutions to the problem, there are many other answers, such as taking the barometer to the basement and knocking on the superintendent's door. When the superintendet answers, you speak to him as follows:
    "Dear Mr. Superintendent, here I have a very fine barometer. If you will tell me the height of the building, I will give you this barometer...."

  17. @Schmetterlingsjaeger

    I once found a website that contained over 200 solutions to the barometer problem using the most convoluted ways. I think my favourite involved general relativity.

    Also simply define your units to be one apartment building and you're done.

  18. Hello Schmetterlingsjäger,
    this story is commonly attributed to
    Niels Bohr as the student.

  19. Hello Luke and Georg!

    Thanks for that information!
    I hadn't been aware that the barometer story is such popular.
    Now, I made a quick Google search and it provided more than 1 million results.....

  20. From wikipedia's entry on Paul Dirac, and still my two favs:

    An anecdote recounted in a review of the 2009 biography tells of Werner Heisenberg and Dirac sailing on a cruise ship to a conference in Japan in August 1929. "Both still in their twenties, and unmarried, they made an odd couple. Heisenberg was a ladies' man who constantly flirted and danced, while Dirac—'an Edwardian geek', as [biographer] Graham Farmelo puts it—suffered agonies if forced into any kind of socialising or small talk. 'Why do you dance?' Dirac asked his companion. 'When there are nice girls, it is a pleasure,' Heisenberg replied. Dirac pondered this notion, then blurted out: 'But, Heisenberg, how do you know beforehand that the girls are nice?'"


    Heisenberg recollects a friendly conversation among young participants at the 1927 Solvay Conference about Einstein and Planck's views on religion. Wolfgang Pauli, Heisenberg and Dirac took part in it. Dirac's contribution was a poignant and clear criticism of the political manipulation of religion, which was much appreciated for its lucidity by Bohr, when Heisenberg reported it to him later. Among other things, Dirac said:[1]
    “I cannot understand why we idle discussing religion. If we are honest—and scientists have to be—we must admit that religion is a jumble of false assertions, with no basis in reality. The very idea of God is a product of the human imagination. It is quite understandable why primitive people, who were so much more exposed to the overpowering forces of nature than we are today, should have personified these forces in fear and trembling. But nowadays, when we understand so many natural processes, we have no need for such solutions. I can't for the life of me see how the postulate of an Almighty God helps us in any way. What I do see is that this assumption leads to such unproductive questions as why God allows so much misery and injustice, the exploitation of the poor by the rich and all the other horrors He might have prevented. If religion is still being taught, it is by no means because its ideas still convince us, but simply because some of us want to keep the lower classes quiet. Quiet people are much easier to govern than clamorous and dissatisfied ones. They are also much easier to exploit. Religion is a kind of opium that allows a nation to lull itself into wishful dreams and so forget the injustices that are being perpetrated against the people. Hence the close alliance between those two great political forces, the State and the Church. Both need the illusion that a kindly God rewards—in heaven if not on earth—all those who have not risen up against injustice, who have done their duty quietly and uncomplainingly. That is precisely why the honest assertion that God is a mere product of the human imagination is branded as the worst of all mortal sins.”

    Heisenberg's view was tolerant. Pauli had kept silent, after some initial remarks, but when finally he was asked for his opinion, jokingly he said: "Well, I'd say that also our friend Dirac has got a religion and the first commandment of this religion is 'God does not exist and Paul Dirac is his prophet.'" Everybody burst into laughter, including Dirac.

  21. Hi Steven,

    “But, Heisenberg, how do you know beforehand that the girls are nice?”

    I can imagine Heisenberg’s response might have been that though even quantum mechanics may not display a level of uncertainty as great as that of woman's response to a man, just the same nothing can ever become realized before an experiment is performed :-)



  22. Hi Steven,

    “God does not exist and Paul Dirac is his prophet.”

    I like Heisenberg’s comment, as it suggests that the problems in the world are not so much resultant of what people believe, yet rather what they refuse or make no attempt to understand. So to think that one can have proof there is or isn’t a god, is as meaningless as to to claim science is correct as being a matter of faith. In the current state we find our world, it’s too bad that both religious extremists along with those that side with Richard Dawkins would each fail to understand Heisenberg’s point.



  23. Before some time I spread an idea, love is entanglement of brain wave packets under Cooper pair formation (Yukawa coupling), which enables resulting pair of love charge carriers to propagate their genes through energy density fluctuations of human society (Higgs-Andersson field) in more superfluous way.

  24. /*..yet rather what they refuse or make no attempt to understand..*/

    This problem is symmetrical with respect to Popper's methodology, because every skepticism is just a belief in negation. There exists some symmetry violation though, as skeptics were usually eaten by crocodilles in river first.

  25. It seems that someone at Nature has been reading or blog ;-)... there is a post on A tale of two beer bottles, and here is an old report on the "bottle" incident from the pages of Nature.

  26. "Another story that I've heard in several versions circulates around the organizer of an Italian summer school who we don't want to name for his alleged mafia connections..."

    Heh heh. That would be Erice in Sicily. I also heard that the Godfather holds the school in his mansion and makes the invited lecturers stay up late into the night drinking wine and talking physics with him. One time one of the lecturers, L, who was from northern Europe and not accustomed to this kind of hospitality, said he had had enough and was going to bed. But before he could get up he was grabbed anxiously by famous Italian physicist G.V. (not his real initials of course ;) who said "No, L, you must stay. Godfather is not yet satisfied!"


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