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!”
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.”
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.”
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.
More crazy stuff here.