In my experience, McGill students are a diverse bunch. However, there’s one question that we invariably ask one another. It’s shouted over dance floors and whispered over library desk dividers. It’s exchanged between people whose only common ground exists between Peel and University Street. It’s the inevitable:
So, what do you study?
I answer “physics.” I have for almost four years now, and the reaction is always one of surprise. I think that’s because it necessitates a few shocking corollaries:
1.) I actually like physics
2.) I must have escaped from the lab
3.) I am capable of normal conversation
4.) I am capable of conversation at all
So they’re surprised – surprised to find me at a sticky bar table out in the real world. I tell them to grab a chair and sit down. I tell them that “physics isn’t so bad” and “dentists commit suicide more often.” Of course, there are a few more reasons.
The Name Game
It is a universally acknowledged fact that if a scientist is smart enough, they get to name something. Unimaginative (or egotistical) as academics are, most choose some variation of their surname. Physicists, perhaps flustered by success or perhaps a tad immature, sometimes come up with names that are a bit more fun.
Ex. 1 – The Hairy Ball Theorem:
Admittedly, it’s not the most elegant of titles. On the other hand, the concept is elegantly simple. Imagine you have a ball covered all over with hairs. For the sake of good manners, we’ll call it a tennis ball. Now, if you try to comb your tennis ball so that all the hairs lie flat, you’ll find that this is impossible without leaving at least one cowlick. Mathematically, that is to say that for the set of all points xi on an n-sphere, where f is a continuous function such that any f(xi) is a vector tangent to the sphere, there must exist at least one point xo such that f(xo)=0. This has obvious consequences for things like wind and magnetic field lines around our own hairy ball: earth.
Ex. 2 – Quarks:
There are these funny little particles called quarks that physicists like to make soup out of. They have half-integer spin and, like all fermions and most physicists, they don’t like to hang out together. There are six types of quarks. Rather dully, four of them are named up, down, bottom, and top. Given this much, you’d expect the last two to be named left and right, or some equally boring equivalent. Not so, my dear friend, as the last two are called strange and charm! This nonsensical nomenclature is an utter mystery to me. The soup thickens.
Ex. 3 – GUTs and TOEs:
There are four fundamental forces that most physicists agree on (and the one from Star Wars that all physicists agree on). These are the gravitational, electromagnetic, weak nuclear, and strong nuclear forces. To make a GUT (grand unified theory) you have to unify the latter three. To make a TOE (theory of everything), you have to unify all four. The whole of physics, then, isn’t much more than GUTs and TOEs.
Ex. 4 – MACHOs and WIMPs:
Let’s all take a deep breath here – this one is a long explanation.
You can weigh the universe in two ways. The first option is to use its gravitational effects. Mass can be deduced from orbital velocities using laws of gravitation, for example. The second option is to judge mass by its luminous matter: if you can figure out what it’s made of, and how much there is, you know its mass! Astrophysicists happily went about doing these two things. Of course, when they discovered that their first result was 20 times larger than their second, there was a bit of an “oh crap” moment. Ever resilient, they solved their little conundrum by suggesting that dark matter (AKA we-can’t-see-it-and-we-don’t-know-what-the-hell-it-is–matter), was responsible for the discrepancy.
Since this time, several physicists have had a crack at the identity of dark matter. MACHOs (massive astrophysical compact halo objects) and WIMPS (weakly interacting massive particles) are two of the best guesses. MACHOs could be special kinds of dwarf stars – stars that have either burnt out or are too small to have lit up in the first place. WIMPs are tiny particles created during the Big Bang. Not interacting to a visible extent, they’ve been hanging around ever since without anyone noticing. Some supersymmetric particles like neutralinos, photinos or higgsinos are good wimpy candidates.
It turns out that there aren’t enough MACHOs around to make up for all the missing weight. The punch line: WIMPs beat MACHOs. For any academic with dodgeball PTSD, this is a bit like giving the finger to all those grade-school bullies. Sweet.
Say No to Drugs
I once had a neighbor explain to me the appeal of shrooms: “it’s like getting to play around in four dimensions, bro.” Tempting as this may be, there are better trips to be had in the back of an electromagnetism class. Many problems you can solve in as many dimensions as you like, so four (as I was sorry to explain to my neighbor) is a tad lame. String theory suggests that there are really ten dimensions, maybe eleven. There are certainly no more than twelve, I promise.
Once you get bored of dimensions, there are many equally trippy alternatives. Take quantum mechanics, for example. Here, particles exist as waveforms and can be in two places at once. They take every possible path from A to B simultaneously – through both doors and to the moon and back – only assuming a definite position when you try to look at them. Sounds trippy, bro.
Big Bang Baloney
Doctors often lament that since “Grey’s Anatomy” came on the air, everyone thinks that their jobs consist entirely of medical miracles and sex in the on-call room. For me, it’s a similar effect with “The Big Bang Theory.” Each day that I walk into the physics building a small part of me expects to find different variations of Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, and Wolowitz – perhaps playing a zany-cool game, or flirting with Penny. But there are no games. And certainly no Penny.
Instead, the first person you see is an furious-looking bust of Ernest Rutherford. He judges you for your lack of Nobel prizes. Then, if you’re lucky, you may catch a professor in transit. Most walk around as if they’re angry at the world for refusing to divulge its secrets, but some just look lost. You may retreat towards the wall at this point, but I wouldn’t recommend leaning against it. Fatigued? Too bad. The spiky concrete has been known to ruin shirts and draw blood. A nice architectural touch, I find.
Truthfully, the real world of physics is nothing like the frilly world of television – it’s better. Beyond the sadistic walls of Rutherford, real physicists carry real depth. They’re the physicists of soccer pitches and Foosball tables. They’re the physicists of dance clubs and outdoor clubs, of jazz bands and journalism.
Of sticky bar tables.
So grab a chair, sit down. Ask me what I study.mach