Thursday, December 01, 2011

Call to readers: Send us your favorite physics anecdote!

Reminded by a recent comment, Stefan and I noticed that time has come to open the first door on the advent calendar. This year, we will have a daily anecdote from the lives and works of well-known physicists. These are all quotations or stories that many of you will be familiar with from your physics lectures, but I hope for the rest of our readers it will be a little daily entertainment one the way to the holidays. We also have a few anecdotes that while widely known I learned are actually fabricated.

Unfortunately, Stefan's and my brainstorming only brought up 19 items! So we need you to help us out: Send us your favorite physics anecdote or quotation (if possible with source), or we'll run out of stories a week before Christmas. To save an element of surprise for our readers, please do not post it in the comments here, but send an email to hossi[@] (remove brackets), subject: physics anecdote. Don't be shy, I won't tell anybody you're reading blogs ;o)

We start today with the 1st anecdote. It's one of my favorites and, I guess, probably also among the best known ones. A journalist who goes under the name Roundy, interviews Paul Dirac. The interview appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal in April 1929 and its complete version can be found on this website.

"Professor," says I, "I notice you have quite a few letters in front of your last name. Do they stand for anything in particular?"

"No," says he.

"You mean I can write my own ticket?"

"Yes," says he.

"Will it be all right if I say that P.A.M. stands for Poincaré Aloysius Mussolini?"

"Yes," says he.

"Fine," says I, "We are getting along great! Now doctor will you give me in a few words the low-down on all your investigations?"

"No," says he.

"Good," says I. "Will it be all right if I put it this way --- `Professor Dirac solves all the problems of mathematical physics, but is unable to find a better way of figuring out Babe Ruth's batting average'?"

"Yes," says he.

"What do you like best in America?", says I.

"Potatoes," says he.

"Same here," says I. "What is your favorite sport?"

"Chinese chess," says he.

That knocked me cold! It was sure a new one on me! Then I went on: "Do you go to the movies?"

"Yes," says he.

"When?", says I.

"In 1920 --- perhaps also in 1930," says he.

"Do you like to read the Sunday comics?"

"Yes," says he, warming up a bit more than usual.

"This is the most important thing yet, doctor," says I. "It shows that me and you are more alike than I thought. And now I want to ask you something more: They tell me that you and Einstein are the only two real sure-enough high-brows and the only ones who can really understand each other. I wont ask you if this is straight stuff for I know you are too modest to admit it. But I want to know this --- Do you ever run across a fellow that even you can't understand?"

"Yes," says he.

"This well make a great reading for the boys down at the office," says I. "Do you mind releasing to me who he is?"

"Weyl," says he.


  1. I will self-critically add that our list so far contains exclusively European physicists.

  2. Bee,

    I am not sure if this is an anecdote(/) but I thought I would add it anyway.

    The lessons of history are clear. The more exotic, the more abstract the knowledge, the more profound will be its consequences." Leon Lederman, from an address to the Franklin Institute, 1995

    After the test (I felt only slightly better), I returned to the lab to find a janitor mopping the wire-strewn floor and singing an Italian operatic tune. As I entered, the guy shouted something in Italian and offered a handshake.

    I said, "Okay, but be careful. The wires are carrying a high current and your wet mop may produce a short circuit." He stared cluelessly and, in total disgust, I walked out in the hall to wait for the guy to leave.

    In the hall, there was the department chairman. "We have a new, dumb janitor, huh?" I said.

    "New? No, wait! You mean the guy in your lab? "


    "That's no janitor, dummy, that's Professor Gilberto Bernardini, a world-famous Italian cosmic-ray expert whom I invited to spend a year here to help you in your research."

    "Oh, my God!" I gasped and rushed in to repair my damage.

    Over time, Bernardini and I learnt how to communicate and I began to watch Gilberto. There was his habit of entering a dark room, pushing the light switch: light. Pushing it again: off. On, off five or six times. Each time there would be a loud "fantastico!" Why? He seemed to have this remarkable sense of wonder about simple things.

    Then the cloud chamber.

    Gilberto: "Wat's dat wire in de middle?"

    Leon: "That's carrying the radioactive source."

    Gilberto: "Tayk id oud."

    Leon: "It makes tracks."

    Gilberto: "Tayk id oud."

    After a few minutes, tracks appeared. My source had been far too radioactive for the chamber! Now we had a success.
    See:Life in physics and the crucial sense of wonder


  3. Weyl understood that symmeties relating to scale were the next frontier of fundamental physics.

    He only reached the outskirts of that frontier, but nonetheless it was an important start.

  4. Einstein to Bohr: On that thin line that separates genius and madness, Dirac is right on the edge.

  5. Not really an anecdote, but a great one-liner. At a seminar at the IAU General Assembly in 2000 in Manchester, at which time the standard model of cosmology with a low-density universe with a positive cosmological constant had become accepted (based partially on the work which led to this year's Nobel Prize; Bob Kirshner, who was involved in that, gave one of the best talks in Manchester than year on this topic), there were various talks on the determination of cosmological parameters. One speaker had results which also favoured the standard model, but the errors just allowed the Einstein-de Sitter model. Jim Peebles (probably playing Devil's Advocate) asked if there would be enough room in the parameter space for him to live in the Einstein-de Sitter model. The speaker (Ruth Daly, IIRC) replied yes. Without missing a beat, Bob Kirshner cried out "But you would be alone!".

  6. Another great anecdote. I wasn't there, but several people I knew were. When I was at Jodrell Bank, the founder, Bernard Lovell, still came in regularly, though he was long-since retired. While radio astronomers were some of the first scientists to become proficient in computing, even back when he was Director Sir Bernard was more of a manager, string puller, politician, enthusiast, ambassador, champion etc, having done active research when he was much younger. So, he wasn't quite up to date. At coffee, he asked the then Director to explain the internet to him. After some discussion, one of the lecturers gave him an executive summary in a few minutes. Sir Bernard contemplated this for about 30 seconds then, with his upper-class British accent, asked "What's to stop someone from populating it with rubbish?".

  7. Hi Philipp,

    Ha :o) Thanks for sharing, gave me a good laugh. Best,


  8. My favourite is Rutherford's dated 20 March 1913 dismissal of Bohr's atom:

    “There appears to me one grave difficulty in your hypothesis which I have no doubt you fully realize [ahem, conveniently not mentioned or discussed in your paper], namely, how does an electron decide with what frequency it is going to vibrate at when it passes from one stationary state to another? It seems to me that you would have toassume that the electron knows beforehand where it is going to stop.”

    - Professor Ernest Rutherford, letter to Niels Bohr, dated 20 March 1913. (A. Pais, Inward Bound, 1985, page 212.)

    (This funny episode led directly to Bohr's Complementarity and Correspondence principles.)

  9. Hi Suphy,

    Thank you, that is an amusing story. I have strong doubts though that it is authentic. Best,




COMMENTS ON THIS BLOG ARE PERMANENTLY CLOSED. You can join the discussion on Patreon.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.