Thought Experiments


Why Physics Needs Humor

Know a good physics joke? Here’s a variation of one I heard in graduate school. (Be kind: We were grad students, not comedians.)

James Clerk Maxwell and Michael Faraday were traveling together on the Caledonian Express. Outside it was pouring rain. Maxwell pointed to a fellow in a red cap and uniform standing near an open window.

“That trainman is incompetent,” Maxwell said. “He collects nary a ticket and calls out the wrong names for all the stations. Mostly all he does it is lean against the window with his eyes shut. What a disgrace to the railway!”

Suddenly a flash of lightning entered the carriage through the window and hit the trainman directly. The current bounced right off of him and leapt to the floor. Miraculously, the man was completely unscathed.

“How did he survive?” asked an astonished Faraday.

“Aye, that’s simple,” said Maxwell. “He’s a bad conductor.”

Image: Flickr user simpleinsomnia, adapted under a Creative Commons license.

I haven’t conducted an exhaustive study on humor across the disciplines, yet I sense that there is something special about physics—the arduous calculations, the thorny philosophical questions it raises—that seeks relief and clarity in humor. Since the early days of modern physics, physicists have been escaping their own seriousness with jokes, songs, and skits more reminiscent of summer camp than of the laboratory.

Quantum physicists in Copenhagen, such as Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Oskar Klein, Leon Rosenfeld, George Gamow, and many others who spent time there, worked hard unraveling what often seemed a cryptic subject. Quantum mechanics, as interpreted by Bohr, embraces contradictory aspects of reality: what he called complementarity. Complementarity is the idea that if an experiment is designed to test the particle properties of an atomic constituent such as electrons, for example a cloud chamber used to track their paths, the particle aspects manifest themselves, but if the test is targeted at the wave properties, such as a double-slit interference apparatus, those appear instead. Though brilliant, Bohr was not the clearest of speakers—he muttered softly and often enigmatically—which added to other physicists’ sense that his concepts, even if correct, had an air of mystery.

At annual conferences at Niels Bohr’s institute (now know as NBI) that took place in the 1930s there was a tradition of funny performances, acted out by the junior physicists. These not only diverted the physicists from their difficult calculations, they shed light on some of the tricky issues the researchers were facing. Often they also poked fun at the quirks of the senior physicists (at the NBI and elsewhere), such as Bohr’s soft-spokenness, Paul Ehrenfest’s pedantry, Wolfgang Pauli’s acerbic nature, and so forth. Humor helped junior physicists feel assertive enough to press forward with their own ideas and risk Bohr’s quiet disapproval, Ehrenfest’s barrage of questions, Pauli’s brutal putdowns, and all manner of other reactions. Even if the young researchers sometimes felt frustrated, their jokes acted as a relief valve, releasing some of the pressure and enabling them to continue with their efforts.

As physicist Hendrik Casimir, who spent time at the NBI, recalled in his autobiography, “…there was always a good show. Max Delbrück, with an imperturbable face and a top hat, was a magnificent master of ceremonies. Vicky Weisskopf provided both poetry and song, and Weizsäcker was an acknowledged master of the ‘Schüttelrhyme,’ … meaningful poetry where the rhymes are spoonerisms.” (A spoonerism is a phrase in which syllables are swapped in an amusing way, imitating a slip of the tongue, such as “butterfly, flutter by.”)

In that era, where accelerators generated only a tiny fraction of present-day energies, cosmic radiation provided the main source of exotic particles, such as positrons, muons, and so forth. Incoming radiation, with its patterns of decay, became known as “showers.” One year, NBI performers satirized that term with a soaking competition that reportedly left Heisenberg drenched. Another production, the NBI version of “Around the World in 80 Days,” poked fun of Bohr’s extensive travels that year. It featured a mock Himalayas, fashioned from ladders and snowy white paper.

By far, the most famous NBI performance was the “Blegsdamvej Faust,” named for the street where the institute is located. Performed in 1932, it parodied Goethe’s Faust, casting Pauli as the devil and Bohr as the Lord, which shows the reverence physicists held for him. Gamow, who was involved in the play, preserved a delightful copy of its script, with funny illustrations.

Sometimes, a joke finds its way into the scientific lexicon. That’s what happened in 2007, when Kate Land and João Magueijo dubbed a microwave background radiation pattern the “Axis of Evil,” a sly reference to the term then-president George W. Bush had used to refer to three countries that he accused of supporting terrorism and pursuing weapons of mass destruction. The label stuck: cosmologists are still using it, long after the political reference has faded.

Like the giggle that squeaks loose in a moment of awkwardness, physics jokes can also emerge when researchers find themselves stuck in uncomfortable situations. In 2011, when a team of researchers working in Italy erroneously reported that they had observed neutrinos moving faster than light, physics labs were full of neutrino jokes. The observations turned out to be a timing error, but the jokes stuck around for a while. Here’s a variation of some of the jokes I heard making the rounds—for background, tachyons are hypothetical particles that break the light-speed barrier and travel backward in time, violating causality. (The original jokes used “neutrino” but I’m substituting “tachyon” to prevent any further confusion about neutrinos.)

A tachyon walks into Alex Trebek’s studio for Jeopardy tryouts. “Faster-than-light,” the particle says. Alex replies, “What makes a tachyon suitable for Jeopardy?”

Physics jokes elucidate the nuances of tricky topics in an entertaining way. More accessible than dry, technical papers, they help convey enigmatic ideas to the public, in a way that might entice people to learn more. A joke would never win the Nobel Prize, but it might offer the chuckles that inspire a future winner to find the subject enough fun to pursue.

Go Deeper
Editor’s picks for further reading

The Guardian: Scientists tell us their favourite jokes
An electron and a positron go into a bar. Get the punchline in this interdisciplinary list of science jokes.

NOVA: Heisenberg Humor
What’s so funny about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle? Find out in this animated NOVA video short.

PhD Comics
This comic strip provides proof that graduate students are still finding humor in the scientific life.

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Paul Halpern

    Paul Halpern is Professor of Physics at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. A prolific author, he has written thirteen science books, including "Einstein's Dice and Schrödinger’s Cat: How Two Great Minds Battled Quantum Randomness to Create a Unified Theory of Physics" (Basic Books). His interests range from space, time and higher dimensions to cultural aspects of science. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Fulbright Scholarship, and an Athenaeum Literary Award, he has appeared on the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, the PBS series "Future Quest," and "The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special." Halpern's books include "Time Journeys," "Cosmic Wormholes," "The Cyclical Serpent," "Faraway Worlds," "The Great Beyond," "Brave New Universe," "What's Science Ever Done for Us?," "Collider," and most recently "Edge of the Universe: A Voyage to the Cosmic Horizon and Beyond" (Wiley 2012). More information about his writings can be found at