Theoretical Physics Goes Corporate?

By cjohnson | May 13, 2006 3:43 am

Twice in four months. Can’t complain.

Perhaps because (I like to think…not really beleiving it) someone heard about my vision to have more physics out there in the mainstream, and part of the popular culture, there’s been some progress. The New Yorker (and other publications) has had advertisements featuring lots of equations straight from your garden variety theoretical physics notebook. We are not talking about a little postage stamp sized occurence, but a full glossy page of the magazine. This means that somebody realized that one can use physics equations to catch the eye of the general reader and bring them in (to buy your product) rather than frighten them away, which is what is usually assumed by the people who decide on these things.

I think this is progress. See also my recent observation of the appearance of equations being written by the lead in a recent blockbuster movie and you’ll get to thinking that my topsy-turvy reverse-universe I have fun imagining from time to time, where science is part of mainstream popular culture, is starting to become true. Well…. maybe not…but it is nice to imagine.

Here are the two sightings:

The first New Yorker ad (for a well-known credit card) caught my eye way back in January, but I got completely distracted from blogging about it by being extremely busy with work. It is Mike Lazaridis, the brain behind that Blackberry that’s got your thumbs all weirdly worn on one side, and whose vision and generosity gave us the wonderful Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics:
mike lazaridis
Back then I was going to do a post about it mainly to find out who wrote the equations, since it is not Mike’s field. Well, I learned just now that it was Theoretical Physicist Melanie Becker!

Well, yesterday, upon opening my copy of this week’s New Yorker, I spotted, to my delight, the following:
ad equation
This was an ad for an SUV, would you believe. I have not a clue what the slogan means, but who the hell cares?

Now I’m pretty sure that the person in the picture is familiar…. not an actress, but in fact (I’m guessing) Theoretical Physicist Lisa Randall! I’m not sure though, but the hair, hands and bracelet look right. Lisa, is that you? Excellent!

[Update: Nope. It has been pointed out by a number of readers that I’m very much in error. This is not Lisa. Pity, really. See comment thread.]

More please, Corporate America. More, more!


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and the Media
  • damtp_dweller

    It can sometimes go too far the other way though. Sometime last year there was a TV advert in the UK for a well-known brand of shampoo which had lots of complicated-looking equations in the background to bolster their claims that this stuff was scientifically-tested. Great, I’m all for well-tested hair products. The problem, however, was that the equations were none other than Maxwell’s equations. Bizarre.

  • Arun
  • Dave Bacon

    That SUV ad is excellent, but that has to be the least sloppy blackboard work I’ve ever seen!

  • JoAnne

    The SUV ad was in the Wall Street Journal a couple of days ago – someone brought it in and hung it in the SLAC theory group coffee room. The equations are eerily reminiscent of those in section 10.2 of Peskin & Schroeder’s field theory book. I wanted to blog on it, but discovered that the Wall Street Journal doesn’t let you read anything on-line unless you subscribe.

    Alas, Clifford, I am sure the model is not Lisa Randall.

  • JoAnne

    PS: Clifford, I am willing to bet that those responsible for the ad are (yet) not aware of what they are missing by not reading our blog.

  • Cynthia

    Excellent post! If Seth Lloyd can successfully harness Loschmidt/Laplace’s demons for his quantum computing project, perhaps this Lisa Randall look-alike can improve the fuel efficiency of a SUV by squeezing a few of these demons into the gas tank of an SUV. A nineteenth century preamble to twenty-first century physics: Boltzman tells Loschmidt, “Go ahead, Reverse them!”

  • Clifford

    JoAnne…. Oh well. I was sort of hoping that Lisa had helped open up a new revenue stream for those with our skills… Equation-writer-for-hire. Talent scouts, please contact my agent. I do everything from just small shots of a hand writing equations right up to full double page spreads. I’m not cheap, but I’m worth it. 😉


  • Clifford

    Also, JoAnne?…. Scanner.


  • JoAnne

    I like the idea of being an Equation-writer-for-hire. Definitely within my skill set!

  • Arun

    Why scanner? Found it here in a minute

  • Plato

    In regards to Mike Lazardis, JoAnne made a early posting in regards to contributions, and this is one that I am most proud of, in regards to fueling societal values in regards to what you science people do.

    My respect, for Smolin and the work they have done in this institution. Shall we say, selfless? Not “ego biased” while serving a greater purpose?:)It’s hard work for anyone to overcome, while setting our sights on the good we see in humanity, makes it easier.

    Sorry. Someone else made the observation first Clifford.


  • Clifford


    For the umpteenth time:- this is not a breaking news website. We are not in competition to bring things out “first” ok? I blog about what interests me and what might interest the readers. Whether it has been blogged about before is irrelevant.

    Also: Be aware that there are several more researchers at Perimeter besides Lee Smolin, who’ve also worked incredibly hard to make the place a success.



  • Alexey Petrov

    I can explain the SUV ad (it’s Ford, right?). It _is_ a slightly spiced-up page of calculations from the Peskin and Schroeder book. And this is not Lisa Randall. This ad was made by a company that is headquatered in Detroit — I have a business card of one of the authors of this ad!

    What happened is that couple of months ago I was sitting in my office at Wayne State, looking over my QFT notes that I’m supposed to teach next Fall, when a guy showed up at my door and asked to “write down a complicated-looking equation.” Now, that’s not a usual question that I get when I sit in my office during the lunchtime! He quickly explained that he works for this advertisement company and they were contracted by Ford to produce a series of ads that should highlight the talent of Ford engineers and at the same time appeal to young people. (He showed me a prototype of an ad with that girl sitting next to a blackboard.) So his boss sent him to the closest university — which is WSU, 5 min down Woodward Ave. from their office, to fish out a “complicated equation.” The rest is simple — I use Peskin and Schroeder as a main text for my course, so producing a list of equations was relatively straightforward. I must add that I received no monetary (or any other) compensation… :-(

    Amazing, isn’t it? If you need to contract them, I’ll send you the business card of the guy who I talked to — once I get to my office (I just got back from the Minneapolis QCD conference)…

  • Cynthia

    It appears that if one is going to be an equation-writer-for-hire then one needs to be able to show a hint of lingerie.

  • Clifford

    Alexey Petrov:- Thanks! I was hoping that this might be the way to find out the back story. Excellent. So I was wrong, indeed, about my guess that it was Lisa, as others have said. I was expecting that there was some connectivity to her book-tour campaign. Would have made a lot of sense to have done the ad given that context. Oh well.

    So you are an equation-writer-for-hire! Excellent! Next time, perhaps politely ask if you will be compensated. If you were consulting on the colours, or the clothes she was wearing, or the background music choices (for a tv ad), or a host of other things, you would have probably been offered some payment, however minimal. Why should your science knowledge not be taken seriously too? It also means that the whole thing is taken more seriously by the corporate types also. If you’re free…you’re often not percieved as valuable. A nominal fee can’t hurt. This is just my opinion….feel free to ignore.



  • Clifford

    Cynthia:- No problemo. I’ve got excellent lingerie to flash, if needed. 😉


  • Plato

    Yes Clifford. Why the struggle?

    You cut the mathematical explanation of Lazardis picture? Why?

    […snip….. -cvj]

    It’s not breaking news as you say.

  • Clifford

    Plato. I already gave that link. Thanks.


  • Plato


    The equation…?

    A personal perogative of course?:) Just trying to operate within the contraints :)

  • JoAnne

    Alexey: Excellent! You go dude! Please write Michael (Peskin) and tell him the story – he found the ad in the Wall Street Journal and was tickled pink (and terribly curious about its background).

  • Clifford

    JoAnne… are you saying that Michael does not read the blog?!! I’m shocked. What’ve you been doing all this time…? Go get him reading!

    Plato… Precisely.


  • Plato

    …a script writer, with an attitude.

    Wonderful :)

  • blinkin

    Too bad. I was hobing it was Lisa Randall as well. She came and spoke at $local_university last year, promoting her book on string theory. I had to tear myself away in order to make the beginning of my evening shift as a helldesk operator…

    Also, your blog is awesome guys. I’ve been reading it for a week now (caught the link on one of Seed’s Zeitgeist digests), and have been entertained, educated, and generally found your posts to be generally enjoyable.

    -blinkin the misanthropic it gremlin

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  • Moshe

    Speaking of the PI, they have those wonderful concerts in the main lecture hall (where last year’s summer school took place), and the blackboard is especially decorated with neat-looking equations (or maybe just not erased before the concert). It works very well with string quartets.

  • John Branch

    I too think Lisa Randall is cool, and I’d be glad to see her appear in an ad, but I’m actually glad this one isn’t using her. Its focus is on the idea (equations and complicated brainwork as a component of engineering invention), not on the person, so she’d be wasted in this presentation. Her image (i.e., her face) isn’t yet familiar enough for the kind of ad that Apple Computer had going for a while that allied the slogan “Think different” with estimable, recognizable persons such as Einstein, Gandhi, and Amelia Earhart. But I think she may be cool enough for an American Express ad; some of the people in those have familiar faces (Kate Winslet), some have names that most of us know (M. Night Shyamalan), but the concept, I think, is to link an accomplished person with the credit card. There’s an exchange of prestige going on in those ads–if you know the person, AmEx gains something from the association, and if you don’t, the fact of their appearing in the ad grants them some status and helps familiarize you with their face, their name, their work. I had no idea what M. Night Shyamalan looked like until AmEx showed me. I’m ready to see Lisa Randall join their company, and if not now, maybe in five or 10 years.

    By the way, I think I discovered Cosmic Variance because a New York Times article on her mentioned a discussion here as to whether she resembles Jodi Foster. (Which so far I haven’t gotten around to looking up.)

    To indulge in a spot of self-promotion, I have a kind of remixed picture of Lisa Randall at Flickr. I’m not that happy with it now, but it’s got a hint of equations on a blackboard.

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