Silly Talk About Science

By Mark Trodden | July 24, 2005 6:51 am

Writing in the Bad Science section of The Guardian, Ben Goldacre has a fun little article, titled “Party Hard”, in which he asks for readers’ input. Goldacre recounts some of the more stupid comments ever made to him about science at a party – his personal best involves being told that Newton’s laws of motion might have turned out differently if Newton was a woman (this might be a good time to make it crystal clear that this is not a comment about, or the beginning of an intended thread on, or anything to do with questions of women and science, and that I do not expect to see Larry Summers’ name in the comments).

Goldacre wants to gather more anecdotes regarding what he calls the Public Misunderstanding of Science and is exhorting his readers to send him their examples of the most stupid thing ever said to them about science at a party. If you want to take part, you can email your examples to

I’m not sure I’m prepared to reveal my personal party stories. Most of the silliest things I’ve heard came from people I know pretty well and who would recognize their role in any such story if they were to read the post (I do like the idea that, if they do read this post, they’ll be running their minds back through the rash comments they may have made to me in a half-soused haze). Rather, I’ll let you have a story from a different setting.

About eight years ago I was getting a haircut at a random place to which I never returned. My hairdresser was a very sweet woman who seemed to enjoy chatting with her clients. Part of our conversation went like this:

HD: “So what do you do then?”

MT: “Oh, I’m a physicist.”

HD: “That sounds interesting – what is it?”

MT (Thinking a little more specificity is required): “I study cosmology and particle physics. I’m interested in the universe and black holes and the big bang – that sort of thing.”

HD: “Yeah, but what sort of thing is it?”

MT: “You mean cosmology, or physics, …?”

HD: “Whichever. What you do”

MT (Trying to make touch with more everyday concepts): “You know, when you look up at the sky, at outer space, you see stars and galaxies. Well I care about the universe – how all that space and those galaxies came into being and behaved between the beginning of the universe and now.”

HD: “Hmmm…”

MT (Now thinking more generality is needed): “You probably remember physics, from school. You know – figuring out the laws of nature, like gravity and magnetism. How they work. I’m interested in those questions, applied to the universe.”

HD: “Yeah, but what is it? Is it dead bodies or what?”

MT: “Would you mind using the child-proof scissors please?”

OK, so I didn’t actually say the last quote. But I wanted to.

I did actually persevere with the conversation and did my very best to explain what physics and, more concretely, cosmology are. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure I was unsuccessful is getting an appreciable amount of information across. Gotta try though.

  • Steve

    “Well I care about the universe…how all that space and stars and galaxies came into being…”
    Cheer up Mark. At least she did’nt ask you to predict her horoscope:) I remember as an undergraduate and postgraduate having these sorts of conversations every time I went for a haircut. I think hairdressers are trained to asked prying questions about what you do and where you go your holidays. I ended up just going home when I needed a haircut and let my mother do it! Well-meaning relatives would ask questions like “can you explain what was your degree was in again?”(mathematical physics). When I got my Phd, my dear old grandmother (god rest her soul) remarked “but you are not a real doctor”. A “real doctor” being someone who dispenses medication!

  • Dr. Bonzo

    A perennial favorite:

    Hairdresser: “So, what are you studying?”

    Me: “Physics.”

    Hairdresser: “Oh, that must be hard!”

    I mean, what’s the proper response to that? “Yeah, but I love punishment!”? “No, it’s only hard if you’re an idiot.”? “Well, for you maybe.”?

    Now that I’m a “software professional,” I can pretty well get away with a simple, “Oh, I’m a geek.”

  • Mark

    Funny stuff guys. I actually have had a number of hairdressers who are fascinated by science and who hunger for a better understanding of it. It’s really just this one who didn’t get it.

    When confronted with the “that’s hard” comment, I usually try to talk to them about how much one can understand about science at the descriptive level, without having to learn the mathematics in which the details are expressed. I think science is pretty hard for most people. I know it’s pretty hard for me!

  • CapitalistImperialistPig

    It must have been a slow day at the deli, because when I ordered my cheese-steak, the copy of Scott Dodelson’s Modern Cosmology I was carrying immediately caught the counterman’s eye, and he rather eagerly engaged me in conversation about it. He seemed rather disappointed when I had to explain that the book didn’t actually have anything to do with hair styling or manicures.

    Interestingly enough, I live in a State that has (or at any rate, had) an official State Cosmetologist.

  • Urbano

    Another one about hairdressers… She asked me what I did study, and when I replied “Physics”, she started saying “Really? I have to do some physical exercises”, pretending she was lifting an invisible weight…

  • CapitalistImperialistPig

    Dr. B – Hairdresser: “Oh, that must be hard!”

    The correct response is – “No, it’s actually pretty easy. Just sitting at my desk staring at the wall mainly. Now finding somebody to pay you to do that – that’s hard!

  • Chaz

    Another hairdresser story… I should start by saying that we had a very nice conversation, and I ended up with a fantastic haircut.

    Upon hearing that I was a physicist, she asked for my opinion on the following idea she had:

    1) Brain waves are made of matter
    2) Matter is never created nor destroyed
    3) Thus brain waves must go somewhere when we die

    I was so stunned, I didn’t even know where to begin. I didn’t want to touch #3. I decided that I’d be satisfied if I could get her to replace “matter” with “energy” in her argument. But everything I said got me a weird look.

    Later on in the converstation, she was shocked but delighted to know that the Big Bang was a testable, factual thing.

  • Matt McIrvin

    Hmm, given that setup I’d probably go off on some baffling tangent about unitarity, entropy and the arrow of time…

    My experience squares with Dr. Bonzo’s. Now I can just tell people I write programs that run inside of the gadgets they buy and they know more or less what I’m talking about. And I don’t get the dreaded “what good is it?” question any more, though personally I don’t know why the utility of consumer gadgets is more self-evident than that of physics knowledge.

  • Sean

    To redress the balance, I’ll tell my favorite story. As a grad student I went to the nearby pizza place to get a chicken parm sub. It was off-hours, so the only people there were the guy making the pizzas and I. He was about my age, with a pronounced Italian accent, likely a member of the family that owned hte place.

    As I sat down to eat, he asked if I was from the Observatory, and I admitted that I was. He says, “So that means you know something about matrices, right?” I admitted that I knew a little, and he says “Okay, I have some questions for you.” He brings out a linear algebra book and begins to quiz me on whether or not certain matrices are invertible. I pointed out that a certain example was invertible, but he insisted on figuring out the complete classification. Turns out he was taking an extension course at Harvard. I peeked into the book he had with him, and noticed that it wouldn’t be long before he was asking questions I wouldn’t be able to answer as easily. So I avoided going there for pizza for the rest of the semester.

    That’s when I figured out for sure — long after I should have — that there is a lot more than intrinsic talent that goes into determining who gets the PhD’s in physics. A few different flips of the cosmic coin, and it could have been me flipping pizzas there. I like to think that I would have had the initiative to take math courses in my spare time, but who knows?

  • Mark

    Well Sean – I suspect it’s more likely that you would have become obsessed with the quality of the pizzas you made and the question of what best to drink with them.

  • bub

    woman on plane: “So, what do you do?”

    me: “I’m an astronomer.”

    woman: “That must be fun. But… what’s left to do? I mean, we already know the names of all the stars!”


  • Jeff

    Ok, I guess everyone has one of these and I guess I can’t resist telling mine.

    Last year I was on my way back to the US from Canada and passing through US immigration in Toronto. I usually expect to get a few questions and so wasn’t surprised when the immigrations guy asks me what I’m doing in the US. Nor was I surprised when my answer of “I’m a postdoc at Brown University” got a blank(ish) stare either. Then he asks what I was doing in Canada and I tell him that I was visiting the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. He asks what it is I study and I respond “string theory”. Then he says: “Do you study string theory or 11-dimensional M-theory? Do you know about black holes? Do they have entropy?”. I pick my jaw off the floor and answer him. To his satisfaction I guess cos he then responds (after seeing a bit of a line forming behind me): “Ok, I want to talk some more about physics so I’m going to look at your passport and the computer screen and you just look a little worried for a bit.”

    Anyway, turns out that the guy used to be a librarian in the physics department of some university before joining immigration.

  • Chris

    Just be glad you’re all non-psychologists. You can only hear so many Freud questions, or conversations that begin, “I have this friend who has this problem,” before you go completely insane.

  • Stan

    Jeff, I had a similar moment in US customs coming back from Germany last year. I was slightly delirious after having not gotten much sleep, and the customs guy asks me what I do (in that creepy staring way like they are waiting for you to say “I’m a drug deale…No, wait, I mean I’m a fashion consultant.”). I tell him I’m a physics grad student, and he responds with “Oh, so you should know what a pentaquark is.” In my travel-zombie state, I have no idea what I said in response, but it was thankfully enough to convince him I wasn’t a criminal pretending to be a physics student.

  • PhilipJ

    The “stupid” aspect of my story is our attachment to science fiction television shows, and not actually anyone displaying a big misunderstanding of physics, but I’ll add my story to the mix anyway.

    As invariably pops up when meeting new people and talking to old friends, I get asked what I’m doing these days. When I say I’m a physics grad student, the immediate reaction of a few people (non-scientist friends, my current landlord, some guy waiting at the bus stop) has been “So, you’re working on tractor beams and stuff, like in Star Trek?”

    For the first time ever, I have been able to answer “yes, kinda…”. My lab has been putting together an optical tweezer apparatus, which is close enough to a Star Trek-style tractor beam that I don’t mind saying yes. The surprised look on people’s faces has been great. “So can you pick up cars and things?”, they ask, and are always a little disappointed when I tell them that right now, we’re trapping things that are micrometers in diameter. “But if you had a bigger laser beam and stuff… could you?”

    One of my friends _really_ wanted to know what we would need to get a tractor beam of Star Trek’s proportions running, and we must have talked about it for a good 20 minutes. :)

  • Nate

    Elderly gentleman: So, whadda ya do?
    Me: I study Physics.
    E.g.: Wait, you study laxatives!?

  • erc

    I was in Toronto for Strings, and after visited the US. The customs guy asked what I was going there for, and I told him – physics, and his response was “So you’ve been at the Strings conference then?” I was more than a little surprised. Apparently there was a public service broadcast recently, and he thought it was great. Disappointingly, he expressed astonishment that there are physicists in the UK (other than Hawking)… And that there are female ones. You can’t have everything I guess..


  • Astronomy Grad Student

    Every time I go visit my parents in Puerto Rico, I run into some acquaintances who ask how things are going and what am I doing now. When I answer “I’m an astronomy grad student”, about 80% of the time I get the response “Oh! Astronomy! Like Walter Mercado, right?” For reference, Walter Mercado is a famous astrologer in Latin America: … And yes, it is very annoying when this is followed by “Can you tell me my horoscope?”

  • CapitalistImperialistPig

    Astrologer stories? I love astrologer stories.

    As a grad student in the seventies I taught a night Astronomy course with lab, and one of my students was an astrologer – she wanted to know how the other 2% lived. Forced me to learn about epochs and such. I don’t remember her as a great student, but the brownies she brought to class were — interesting.

  • Richard

    Perhaps except for number theorists or applied mathematicians, a mathematician usually isn’t confronted with dumb questions or assertions, because very few people have any idea whatsoever what you do, and have nothing to grasp unto. Mathematicians, when asked what they do, usually get the standard response “Oh, I was never good at math,” and the conversation ends immediately. Mathematicians live in a thick social fog.

    I usually don’t think about it, but sometimes things happen that make you realize that doing math makes you a fairly exotic bird. I was having a quiet dinner in one of my favorite ethnic restaurants and scribbling notes on some papers. The people in the table behind me got up to leave, and one stopped at my table and exclaimed “Wow, you’re doing math in a restaurant!” Everyone turned to look, and as the person exited the front door turned around and gave me a thumbs up.

    Oddly, a similar kind of identity fog is also experienced by some medical survivors of rare conditions. I have a very rare and serious immune dysfunction in which I don’t make certain types of antibodies. Since almost no one knows what it is, including many doctors, and there are no TV miniseries or celebrities like Lance Armstrong [I’m watching them approach the finish line in Paris right now] to bring attention to it, I’m also walking in that fog. As is typical for this problem, I was extremely ill for years before I finally obtained a diagnosis and started treatment. Since symptoms are largely invisible, few people, including my family members, have any idea whatsoever what it was like trying to work and fight the large number of unpleasant symptoms and extreme fatigue involved. I get really stupid comments such as “Oh, my uncle Harry gets a lot of colds — he must have what you have,” and my eyes roll up into my head.

    A few months ago, as I was being taken home in a cab from the hospital where I had just had my monthly immune globulin infusion, the college educated cabbie was curious what I had been doing in the hospital all afternoon and why I was so spaced out. As I explained it, I was met by silence from the front seat. I then explained that I am now recovering and am finally able to continue research in math that I had started as a graduate student. He wanted to know what it was about because he had a friend who “was into math.” I explained that I was writing a long paper on representation theory of topological transformation groups, and he tried to get me to explain what that was all about. I just couldn’t say anything that made much sense to him. As he dropped me off, I realized that the poor guy got hit with a package of two exotic way-over-the-top-of-his-head stories in a single ride. It was then that it occurred to me that the intersection of the set of people who do pure math with the set of people with this virtually unknown and exotic medical condition is probably a singleton — me.

    A few weeks ago I ordered a French grammar from Amazon. Someone screwed up and sent the wrong book. It was called Party of One — The Loners’ Manifesto. I got a good laugh out of it.

  • Torbjorn Larsson

    My experience coincide with Dr. Bonzo and Matt. But I have a customs story too:

    When I researched for my PhD a collegue and I went abroad on a seminar. Due to winter storms we were late and exhausted at arrival. We had started to worry if we could catch the last bus or had to take an expensive cab. Sure enough, that was the one time I was selected for a customs search!

    The officer unpacked my bag until he got to the stack with seminar papers. After lifting up a few on top, he hesitated and asked what they where. When told that we had been at a seminar he said “Fine, you can go now”. So he taught me a smuggler trick; just pack the stuff beneath some professional litterature!

  • agm

    Just this Thursday my waiter came over to refill my glass. I’m waiting for some General Tso’s, which I haven’t had in like forever, and this guy want me to explain my field to him. Then a few minutes he comes back over and asks about my research. Being somewhat persistant, I put Pattern Recognition down to answer him. My god, would people get a clue?! I’m doing plasma densities in the magnetic polar cap — space physics, but the word “space” instantly means I’m doing astro/cosmology work. It’s not annoying, the first few times. It’s really, really annoying the fiftieth time in a week.

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  • CapitalistImperialistPig

    To agm and the others who find uninformed inquiries annoying. Who is funding your research? If it’s the taxpayer, directly or indirectly, maybe you need a little attitude adjustment.

    I can only recall one occasion when I found being quizzed about physics slightly bothersome – a neurologist only wanted to talk about Feynman – while I was paying him $200/hr.

  • citrine

    * I have a M.S. in Physics and now I’m finishing up one in Math. The standard response is “you must be a genius”. I tell people that I really enjoy Math and Physics but one need not be a genius to do graduate work in either subject.

    * My dentist asks me questions on Astrophysics while he’s
    working on my teeth.

    * A manicurist once wanted me to get for her the autograph of a famous science fiction writer.

    * Strange but true story. A woman asked “can I touch you?”.
    I honestly think that she wanted to make sure I was a real person and that she’s not hallucinating. (The touch, by the way, was on my shoulder.)

    * A faculty member from the Argiculture department I met at a dinner hosted by some Physics people later whispered to me “I didn’t know Physicists EAT”.

  • citrine

    Hi all,

    OK, so now we’ve had a little chuckle about questions from people who are baffled and/ or fascinated about our work.

    I’m curious about how any of you deal with antagonism
    towards you due to your chosen line of work. Any tips on dealing with vaguely hostile comments one gets when, say, reading a pretty technical work in public? The implication
    being that you are deliberately doing it to look smart (and by default, to make others around you look dumb).

  • citrine

    Oops, sorry about the formatting in my previous post. Had no idea how it happened.

  • Simon DeDeo

    In defense of hairdressers and barbers, one of the guys who cuts my hair here in Princeton is a huge astronomy and model rocketry buff. I always learn something. (He also cuts the hair of a few Nobel laureates, and so is usually underwhelmed by us grad students.)

  • Christina Pikas

    Ok, so I only have a BS in Physics my grad degree is in library science… I always get… well if you could get a bachelors in physics, couldn’t you do something besides being a librarian, I mean something real? ARGH!

  • janet

    My husband (an ex-physicist; now he works in the tech industry) gets into these conversations more often than I do. My favorite is one that’s more cute than stupid: A few years ago at the gym someone saw him reading a book on number theory while working out on the Stairmaster. The guy asked my husband what it was about, and after hearing the explanation said “I usually read Daniele Steele when I work out.”

    A few months ago he got into a frustrating conversation at a party with a guy I will call Jens. Jens was saying that certain biotech breakthroughs, which nobody currently thinks are possible, are actually inevitable, and that they will occur soon. My husband wanted to know why he thought so. Jens said something along the lines of “scientists always say that things are impossible, and then they turn out to be possible.” They went around and around for several minutes, and my husband was unable to convince him that this wasn’t a good argument. When he told me about the conversation later, I said that he should have pointed out that the opposite is often true: that solving a particular problem turns out to be much harder than was thought at first. (Case in point: a cure for type 1 diabetes. It’s been “just around the corner” for 40 years.) But at that point it was too late.

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  • Pyracantha

    If I were in a group of whatever kind and I found out that someone was a physicist, I would be wildly enthusiastic because I am just beginning to study it, and being on my own I never get to talk to a Real Live Physicist. I would probably tell the poor soul my whole life story After I Discovered Physics, and ask him all sorts of questions about the basic high school stuff I am studying, and he would probably be happy to get away from me.

  • Clifford

    “ask him”… or “her”, surely? :-) -cvj

  • Mychelline

    I would love to talk to a Real Live Physicist too. HS Physics, 20 years ago, sparked a (strictly amateur) interest in quantum mechanics and string theory. My non-scientific husband and friends are completely uninterested in hearing me babble on about how fascinating it all is.

    I’m a (bio)geographer, but everyone I know invariably remembers me as a geologist, and asks me about rocks. (I do like rocks, and collect them everywhere I go, but I’m not an expert on any rock-related subject.)

  • cq

    I know just what you mean. Despite having a degree and a masters in theoretical physics, and despite being in the middle of a PhD at Cambridge in the UK right now, I *still* have to explain what I do to my parents every time I see them. I really think they wanted a lawyer for a son and that they’re playing dumb just to rile me, but I wonder sometimes…

    I guess it’s just hard for laypeople to trust us when we’re constantly covered in chalk dust.

  • bob

    She asked me what I did study, and when I replied “Physics”, she started saying “Really? I have to do some physical exercises”, pretending she was lifting an invisible weight…
    As APS members know, they propose changing their name from “American Physical Society” to “American Physics Society” because they think the new name will avoid having people think they deal with getting physical. Clearly the anecdote above shows that the proposed change won’t make any difference at all in public perceptions.

  • Travis

    I just read all of these comment, and I think I’ve been lucky. While I have dealt with all kinds of people, some being pretty ignorant of science as a whole, I don’t have many stories of the silly things people say (well, there was this one young earth creationist, but he had misconceptions about physics, chemistry, biology and geology, and any other subject he wanted to talk about).

    I’m just starting my graduate student days, but I’ve been lucky in the parent field as well. While neither have a background in science, and neither have university degrees, they both have read many books about science, mostly about biology, but some physics, and have enough of the basic ideas that they can understand what I’m getting into. They got me interested in science very early on, and I don’t think they could be any happier about my choice to continue in physics (and probably pleased that my twin brother is also doing physics, in fact, both of us are working in particle physics now).

  • shhiggins

    A few years ago my girlfriend worked at a little biotech company near Boston, and I got to tag along when they had a retreat on a little island on the coast of Maine. Gorgeous place: little cabins, no electricity, compost loos, trees, ocean and birds. Someone had brought along an LLBean backyard telescope, and when the cloudless, moonless night fell the skies lit up. Soon Jupiter rose in the east and I set the scope on it. She was gorgeous with four of her moons lined up. As people queued up to take a look, this one yahoo who had a star chart said, “Hey, wait a minute… Jupiter is not supposed to be over THERE (pointing east), it is supposed to be over THERE (pointing west)! That is not a planet with moons, it must be a STAR with PLANETS!”

    My jaw scraped the ground.

    “You can’t be serious!” I said.

    Then, the CEO (PhD in immunolgy and a DVM as well) said,”Well, he has the star chart!”

    “But…But…” I sputtered. My girlfriend (no doubt fearing for her job) gently nudged me and whispered “Shut UP, shut UP…”

    Seems the yoyo had the star chart upside down.

    Later she told me how her superviser insisted that she put standard deviations on a dataset with n=2. “Excel lets you do it!” he insisted.

    The company is not doing too well, BTW…

  • Mark

    Update: This week’s Bad Science column compiles some of the best readers’ responses to the question.

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  • TFScott

    Not sure if I should share this story, as the silliest scientific comment I have ever heard came straight from my own mouth. All I can say is that I was writing my PhD, had a newborn son and had only slept about four hours in three days. Anyway, I had just run into the library to find a last minute reference when I noticed that most of the patrons are busily running out the door. Approaching the librarian in attendance I ask him what is going on.
    “They are all going to look at the eclipse” says the librarian.
    “Oh really?” says I, “Where is it?”

    Librarians 1, Physicists 0.

  • Susan

    I’m not a scientist, and I don’t even play one on TV… but the problem with having a PhD in instructional design is that instead of no one knowing what you do, everyone THINKS they know as much or more about your field than you do. Hey, we all sat in classrooms at one time, right? What’s there to know about teaching? Or learning, for that matter?


    And, I suspect that there aren’t many doctoral-level folks whose parents (grandparents, aunts, uncles, hairdressers, etc) really know that they do. This is a big boat we’re all in, people!

  • Chris

    Mychelline: I’m a geographer and I get the “geologist” thing all the time.

    Regarding “Jens” that Janet mentioned, I wouldn’t rip on him too much. It seems like what he’s trying to do is state Clarke’s First Law, “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

  • Jocelyn

    Oh, I have one! When I first came into the States for grad school, I was interviewed at Customs for the Canadian-American border near Seattle. The man asks: “So what kind of physics are you going to study?”

    Jocelyn: “General Relativity.”
    Customs man: “What?”
    Jocelyn: “Gravitation?”
    Customs man, getting aggravated: “What??”
    Jocelyn:”Einstein’s theory?”
    Customs man: “In ENGLISH, please?”
    Jocelyn, now sure she won’t be let into the country: “Black holes!”
    Customs man, as if this explains everything: “Oh, black holes.”

    He does the requisite paper-stamping and hands my stuff back to me.

    Customs man: “Now if you see heaven in those black holes, you’ll tell us, right?”
    Jocelyn, smiling nervously: “I don’t think that’s my jurisdiction. But if I do, I’ll let you know.”

  • Captain Sunshine

    When someone asks what I do and I tell them I’m a chemistry teacher (I have learned not to volunteer this information), I overwhelmingly get one of two answers :

    –“Chemistry? Wow. I HATED that class.”


    — “Wow. You must be really smart.”

    Seriously. 90% of the time it’s either A or B. And I don’t even bother to reply straight to these answers anymore, since both of them (B especially) do reflect some antagonism and/or apprehension (as citrine asked about). I just tell them how much fun it is to blow up stuff, and they are nicely deflected.

    I have had a couple of people and parents get observably upset when they try and talk about what I do, and don’t feel like they can. Them, I take a little time with, because they’re willing to learn. Many are not.

    I get Christina’s comment a lot (“couldn’t you do something else [read: make more money] with those degrees?”), too. From my dad. *sigh*

    And probably not entirely on-point, but the funniest comment I’ve ever received from a student (who was quite fortunately for me pulling my leg) was in lab:

    “Hey! I have a question. If it’s a salt, why doesn’t it taste salty?”

    You’re not SUPPOSED to run in lab, but I did.


  • Jim

    Although I have the standard stories that came from being a physics grad student, my favourite story happened to my best friend’s brother on the bus.

    Passenger: So, what do you do?
    Brother: I’m a pharmacologist.
    Passenger: so, you work on a farm?

    .. and in a completely defeated tone, he answered, “Yes. yes, I do.”

  • Alejandro Rivero

    About porting books, Time ago I was doing some footing at midnight in a small French city. My sport dress is (was) completely black and, to do things worse, it started to rain strongly. So, dark and wet and circulating alone at night in a residential area, I attracted the attention of two policemen. You can imagine, bad French and no documentation, no ID card… I was already preparing for a quick travel in that patrol car, when I got to show the only thing I was porting in my sport jacket: a book on C* Algebras. One of the policemen smiled to the other: “Ah!, mathematician”.

    (I was porting the book because I was planning to get a night bus back to the hotel. But it is a good idea to use such kind of books in smooth sport activities: Last summer I read the Green-Schwartz-Witten while walking along some routes in Spain, and the car drivers were taking exquisite care in avoiding me, instead of the typical aggressive driving against peatons. It was clear I was so concentrated that I was not going to move from my path!)

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  • fortunato caragliano

    I am not a physicist but rather a writer with some interest in your field and a lot of appreciation for the discussion taking place, an honest and fruitful confrontation that can only be good and attractive to a wider community than just specialists.

    Silly Talk About Science… we may be living in the same (11) dimensions or not but I had planned to write a fun story about the whole present situation (strings and not) and the story is finally complete. As it is fairly large for a post I invite you to come read it on Timeline, my blog, here:

    Keep up the xcellent dilaton-ing :-)

  • Richard

    If I try to explain to a non-mathematician what I do and I use the word “topology,” the response is almost invariably “Oh, you’re a topographer!”

  • Alejandro Rivero

    Post #1 and #19 mention horoscopes. Actually I remember also someone asking me about it a couple times; it took me a long way to notice that it was horoscope is standard chit-chat for flirting, I supposse nobody expects you to draw a Keplerian astrological square and to start calculating orbits for an astral chart at three in the morning (For the young ones reading here: astrophysics is an alternative chit-chat you can try if you are uncomfortable about predicting cold in winter and heat in summer).

    And, to join the two threads (these philosophy pingback is more impressive) let me to remember one time partying in the night jointly with two friends; we approached three girls who told us they were students of medicine. We explained, honestly, that we were parting because one of us was coming back from his veterinary job in Canada and another was a Buddish Philosopher taking a break from his study of Pali language at Sri-Lanka… I was just the resident physicist. One of the girls took us apart and asked us if we were furious because she had alerted us that they were university-level girls, and of course told us that there was no need of exaggerate.

  • Simon

    As someone above said – just be thankful you’re not a psychologist ( I am ). There’s only so many times you can hear “Oh… we’re all mad here, ha ha” before wanting to snap.

    It’s also gotten me into some very weird party conversations. The worst was when I was introduced to a good friends’ new girlfriend. After a few minutes of chit-chat, she thumps me between the eyes with this:

    “So… sometimes when I’m driving I get a really strong urge to just run the car into a wall or other people or something. Is this normal?”

    My response was something along the lines that lots of people have um, strange urges. The best thing to do is to not act on them, and talk them over with someone you trust when you do.


  • Davis

    I believe it was during my second year of my PhD program in mathematics that the following conversation occurred:

    man at party: So what do you do?

    me: I’m working on my PhD in math, focusing on algebraic geometry.
    man: Oh, so do you know about sacred geometry?

    The conversation didn’t really go much further than that, surprisingly.

  • Sean

    Real mathematicians don’t go to parties.

  • Alejandro Rivero

    Davis, next time you can explain that the volume of The Pyramid (try to pronounce the uppercases here, of course :-) ) was finally solved in Hilbert’s third problem. Dehn (1900, 1902) and Kagan (1903).

  • Alejandro Rivero

    Hmm has this thread terminated at a mere 55 replies? Let me suggest the contrary topic: not so silly talks.

    A couple months ago the wife of a local farmer was trying to sell us two water pumps. Not knowing about the difference between both, we went to a mechanics workshop (an actual workshop, this is, no an academical one) to ask. The boss explained:
    Boss: “This pump uses valves, you can put it inside the water and it is pushed above, but the water must be very clean. This another has not such problem and it can work even with residual water; the turbine centrifuges the water away and it sucks water from this tube.”
    We: “Er yeah…”
    Boss: “I mean it is a suction pump, you can not use a suction pump for heights greater than about 7 meters” (pause)
    Me: (smiling) “eh, yes, I see”

    Of course when outing from the workshop my friend was kind enough to ask me the question the boss was waiting in his pause: “and even with a bigger centrifuge?”.

  • Gringo

    When my cousin and lab partner through multiple EE classes went to meet the parents of his now-wife, they asked what he was studying in school. He explained he was studying EE and mathematics. They looked at him funny when he said math, and proceeded to ask him something to the effect of, “What can you do with that?”

    Their daughter was studying art history.

  • astromcnaught

    Hello everybody,

    My aunt asking about my new telescope: “How far can it see?” “Erm…”

    Another relative at same telescope after having had a little telescopically illustrated lecture about the planets and so on. We were looking at a bright cresent moon (not Earthlight)… “The shape of the moon, thats caused by the reflections of the sun off the Earth, isn’t it?” [stunned silence]

    Another good one many years ago when discussing the visibility of a solar eclipse. “…but it all depends on the phase of the moon, doesn’t it?”

    I’m not making these up.

  • Computers are to Computer Science….

    I am a computer scientist, and just finished my Ph.D. in April. When I would tell people that I was working on my Ph.D. in computer science, I almost always got the following:

    1) “So do you like have to write a computer program for that?” or the variant “Oh, so you write computer programs? Have you seen X? It’s really cool”


    2) “So you fix computers?”


    3) “I can’t get | | . How would I fix that?”

    I know at this point that I should just let it go, but it makes me SO ANGRY that I get confused with some IT moron (nothing against you IT people, but likening me with my PhD to some geek with a bachelor’s degree who sets up your network is insulting). I inevitably begin with Edsger Dijkstra – “Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.” and then say lots of very technical things (“graph theory”, “erdos”, “lattice”, “propagation”, etc) until the questioner has retreated thoroughly from the IT end of things.


  • MikeW

    Quote from relative of friend about to start chemistry at university:
    – “What are training to be ?”
    (Friend): “A chemist”
    (Relative): “Oh, like Boots, you mean ?”
    [for non-UK readers: ]

  • Pingback: Some adventure » Blog Archive » CGT is not Game Theory()

  • Cygnus

    First of all let me say that I’ve just come across your blog, and it’s plenty nice, keep up the good work.

    I’m doing my Master’s in Physics in a predominantly technological institute, swarming with engineering types. Engineers never cease to amaze me with their ability to ask really dumb questions about physics, I mean of all people you’d expect them to be better informed. One of the most common and irritating comments I get are: “I’ve just proved Einstein wrong”. A little more enquiry gets them lanched into this long argument of how time dilation can’t work because if moving clocks are slower, than the moving clock should see a stationary one as slower. As I patiently explain that, that is exactly the case, they go on and on about how that’s a contradiction. Then, I’ve tried to explain in as much detail as I can but they refuse to understand the basic idea of the reletivity of simultaneaty and so on…

    Nowadays, whenever I get such a crackpot, my immediate response is, why don’t you send that for publication, the Physical Review would love it.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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