Jokes physicists crack — with strings attached

I’m an aspiring physicist. I don;t stand jokes cracked about my kind. And we don;t often crack anything we end up on the wrong end of (no pun intended.) But every now and then the layman would love a sip of all those jokes the physics community shares so I decided to put up ten of the many timeless ones—not too technical, yet not too far from the discipline. I have also added bits of explanation to serve as necessary aid. Read them if you can point to them.

[That last sentence was a rather technical quip, so it is not too much of a problem if you failed to get it. It refers to the one concept around which more jokes have been made than have been made on any other: Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.]

1.

“To understand something means to derive it from quantum mechanics which nobody understands.”

This is a saying that has found its way to perhaps every nook and cranny of the physics community. Nobody knows where it originated.

2.

Apparently, the US is dotted with inns saying stuff like ‘George Washington slept here’ or proclaiming things along the same line. There is an inn in Germany that proudly says, Heisenberg may have slept here.

A quip on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in physics, which states that it is impossible to know both the velocity and position of a particle at a given instant of time, because in measuring one, we would necessarily have disturbed the other.

3.

A neutron walked into a bar and asked, ‘How much for a drink?’ The barista replied, ‘For you, no charge.’

It is alright if you are not laughing yet. The catch is that while most elementary particles like the electron or proton are carry either negative or positive charges, neutrons are neutral i.e. they carry no charge whatsoever.

4.

What did one quantum physicist say when he wanted to fight another quantum physicist?

Let me atom.

A play on the phrase, ‘Let me at ‘em!’ originating most famously from Scrappy-Doo, Scooby’s nephew from the cartoon, Scooby Doo. Physicists do watch cartoons.

5.

Famously known as Murphy’s Ten Laws for String theorists:

Murphy’s Ten Laws for String Theorists: 

  1. If you fix a mistake in a mathematical superstring calculation, another one will show up somewhere else.
  2.  If your results are based on the work of others, then one such work will turn out to be wrong.
  3. The longer your article, the more likely your computer hard disk drive will fail while you are typing the references.
  4.  The better your research result, the more likely it will be rejected by the referee of a journal; on the other hand, if your work is wrong but not obviously so, it will be accepted for publication right away.
  5.  If a result seems to good to be true, it is unless you are one of the top ten string theorists in the world. (By the way, these theorists refer to their results as “string miracles”.)
  6.  Your most startling string-theoretic theorem will turn out to be valid in only two spatial dimensions or less.
  7.  When giving a string seminar, nobody will follow anything you say after the first minute, but, if miraculously someone does, then that person will point out a flaw in your reasoning half-way through your talk and what will be worse is that your grant review officer will happen to be in the audience.
  8.  For years, nobody will ever notice the fudge factors in your calculations, but when you come up for tenure they will surface like fish being tossed fresh breadcrumbs.
  9.  If you are a graduate student working on string theory, then the field will be dead by the time you get your Ph.D.; Even worse, if you start over with a new thesis topic, the new field will also be dead by the time you get your Ph.D.
  10.  If you discover an interesting string model, then it will predict at least one low-energy, observable particle not seen in Nature. 

In summary, anything in string theory that theoretically can go wrong will go wrong, but if nothing does go theoretically wrong, then experimentally it is ruled out.

For the uncertain reader, string theory is a unification model based on the idea that all elementary particles are different vibrations of a microscopic string. Concerning #6, string theories are formulated in various numbers of spatial dimensions, of which nine is the most popular. Concerning #10, the phase “low-energy, observable particle” means that current accelerators are capable of producing and detecting it. 

6.

 A physics professor, who was teaching a graduate course on superstring theory, decided to add an essay question to this year’s final exam. The instructions read, “Describe the universe in 400 words or less and give three examples.”

Understandably, the joke probably came up from (under)graduate students of physics; it is, nonetheless, a remarkably creative one. The catch here is that physicists have found and described—theoretically—tens of thousands of string models that describe the world equally well. There is no feasible experiment to check any of these!

7.

It has been rumored that Edmund Scientific is trying to keep up with the times. The following amusing incident confirms this belief. The Chairman of a Physics Department ordered some lab equipment from the company. When the package arrived, a secretary opened it and found the following warning label: “Despite its superficial appearance, this product at a microscopic level might be made of strings. Manufacturer will prosecute to the maximum extent of the copyright law any attempt to make a supersymmetric version.’

String theory is the idea that the fundamental particles are extremely small vibrating strings. The most interesting types of string theories are superstrings, which are strings that exhibit supersymmetry. Supersymmetry is the idea that there is an approximate symmetry in Nature in which, for every boson (particles spinning with integer units), there is a fermion (particles spinning with half-integer units), and vice-versa. The idea is that an object can be made of normal symmetry as well as a replicated supersymmetry version.

8.

Wanted! Schrodinger’s cat: dead and alive.

Schrodinger’s cat is a famous experiment Erwin Schroding proposed to explain the Uncertainty principle. The idea is that all possibilities (no matter how crazy) are possible mathematically (perhaps in alternate universes) and there is no absolute circumstance/situation until a measurement of it is made. In other words, the outcome of any even is solely based on the observer.

Take, for instance, a cat, put it in a box and close the box. Two valid probabilities are that the cat is either dead or alive. But to find out, you have to make an observation i.e. open the box and look at the cat. The outcome of whether the cat is dead or alive before you open the box is what is strange. Quantum physics (convincingly) shows that the cat has as equal a chance of being dead when the box is closed as is has of being alive.

In Schrodinger’s own words: ”One can even set up quite ridiculous cases. A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counter, there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small that perhaps in the course of the hour, one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges, and through a relay releases a hammer that shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.

‘It is typical of these cases that an indeterminacy originally restricted to the atomic domain becomes transformed into macroscopic indeterminacy, which can then be resolved by direct observation. That prevents us from so naively accepting as valid a “blurred model” for representing reality. In itself, it would not embody anything unclear or contradictory. There is a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks.’

In other news, the cat may have gone to the moon. Quantum physics can prove that too.

9.

There was an old lady called Wright
who could travel much faster than light.
She departed one day 
in a relative way
and returned on the previous night. 

This was Einstein’s favourite limerick, although the origin is uncertain, and has been quoted many a time by Stephen Hawking. The physics behind it is that nobody can travel at the velocity of light, let alone supersede it. But, if we did manage it, the laws of special relativity dictate that clocks will then start traveling backwards in time. This is why the lady returns the day before she started!

10.

Anything that does not matter has no mass.

Matter is the stuff objects contain. Mass arises because of the presence of this stuff. So anything without matter…