Talk Like a Physicist Day

By Sean Carroll | February 22, 2008 11:46 am

For years now, the visionaries over at Cocktail Party Physics have been suggesting that we institute a new national holiday, Talk Like a Physicist Day. After all, pirates have their own speech-pattern day, and physicists have shaped the modern world in ways almost as profound as pirates.

Now it looks like a day has been chosen: March 14, beloved by mathematicians as Pi Day, but also notable as Einstein’s birthday. What could work better? And, like any good movement, this one has its own blog! The excitement is palpable. This is a non-trivial undertaking, so brush off your power laws and ready your equations of motion, and to a first approximation you too can talk like a physicist.

Of course, any good holiday needs accessories. Happily, there is no shortage of items to choose from. Let me just mention one irresistible gift idea: particle plushies.


That’s right, an impressive and growing collection of cuddly representations of your favorite subatomic particles, from old reliables (“the muon: a heavy electron who lives fast and dies young”) to friends you would someday like to meet (“Higgs boson: he’s a bit of a snob, because he’s sometimes referred to as the `God particle’”). You know your whole family wants them.

And, just in case you don’t know what it sounds like to talk like a physicist, here’s an admirable example set by a famous non-physicist: Richard Dawkins (via onegoodmove).

Part of a much longer documentary, Break the Science Barrier. See Dawkins allow a deadly pendulum to swing to within inches of his nose! He explains that he is not in any danger, because there are “laws of physics” that ensure the pendulum doesn’t have enough energy to smash his head into a million gooey pieces. That’s good physicist-talk right there.

Of course, had Dawkins been reading our comment threads lately, he would get the impression that a true scientist has to be open-minded about macroscopic phenomena, not rely on any supposed understanding of “conservation of energy.” Science doesn’t know everything! How can he be sure that there aren’t forces science just hasn’t detected yet, that won’t send that pendulum careening into his smug puss? He keeps relying on his fancy “Newtonian mechanics,” probably based on some sort of “equations,” but he should recognize that the world is a mysterious place! With closed-minded hidebound reactionary equation-based establishment hacks like Richard Dawkins, it’s no wonder science hasn’t made any progress over the last couple of centuries.

(In case you’re wondering, all of the above was perfectly good physicist-talk. Physicists love mockery.)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Internet, Science and Society
  • Ethan

    Really? Physicists are serious about this? Why, is it because we don’t alienate the general public enough with our incomprehensible speech patterns?

    How about something really revolutionary, like, “physicists talk like regular people” day. Or “communication day”, where we try to explain the bizarre things we work on in terms that a high school student could understand? (Not *us* when we were high school students, but average people.) I don’t think that encouraging people to babble about “the gravitational radiation emitted via self-force in a Kerr background” or some such is going to do anything other than isolate physicists from the general public even further.

  • sam

    “How can he be sure that there aren’t forces science just hasn’t detected yet, that won’t send that pendulum careening into his smug puss?”

    I think his point is that understanding basic science can help us make more reasonable decisions in this world. The chance that there’s a yet undiscovered physical principle (that has waited until the second he lets go of the ball to show itself) is fairly unlikely.

    My concern is that the string breaks! Newtonian physics says nothing about shotty craftmanship. ;) That would make a much better YouTube video, though.

  • Rudy

    Ethan, excellent! A lack of any detectable sense of humor is very much characteristic of many physicists. That’s the spirit!

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Do you really think wearing an orange fleece dunce cap is going to advance the cause of physics?

  • anonymous

    Oh, right. I forgot that what was said was that Newtonian mechanics can fall apart at any time, and that there were no other dynamics in play that accounted for both observations in accordance with Newtonian mechanics and deviations from them. Silly me. But perhaps if I had seen an equation that described those forces, I could take the idea seriously.

    (How was that? Was that good physicist talk?)

  • Pieter Kok

    The terms to use on 3.14 are “order of magnitude”, “approximation”, etc. These can work well in ordinary situations.

  • Pieter Kok

    Or better yet: “first-order approximation”: That is only a first-order approximation to a good cup of coffee…

  • Jennifer Ouellette

    And the sarcasm meter goes off the charts! :)

  • Pieter Kok

    A sarcasm detector, that’s a real useful invention. :-)

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  • Neil B.

    Here’s my advance entry, a joke I put up on Usenet (and Backreaction too, IIRC) awhile ago. It is more, talk like a comedian having fun with physics and culture:

    Q: How did life start?

    A: From Atom and eV.

    Well, you have to pronounce eV the right way, but I hope it gives a chuckle or two. I’ll pass on whether the God Particle needed to start them off. That goes back into the process of decompactification and inflation. At that dawn of our universe, 4-play started the ticking of time and the erection of three large dimensions of space out of 9 or 10 teensy weensy ones.

  • andy.s

    So we do what exactly? Put on some grubby clothes, walk around not paying attention to anything, while muttering “G-mu-nu, G-mu-nu”?

    Yes, I know, that’s plagiarism.

  • JerseyBoy

    “First-order approximation”: My wife HATES that phrase when I use it. Normally it’s used in the context of “The living room is clean. Well…at least to a first order approximation.”

    Some other ideas are, when talking about problems/projects, suggest that you approach the problem by assuming:

    1)spherical symmetry
    2)a power series expansion
    3)something that is slightly off mass-shell
    4)the technical details of the math are irrelevant :)
    5)you are in the ground state

  • Arvid

    Another physicist joke for you, to be used on March 14:

    Why do physicist believe all odd numbers are prime numbers?

    Well, 3 is a prime, 5 is a prime, 7 is a prime, 9 is a measurement error, 11 is a prime, 13 is a prime; and from here we can extrapolate.

  • Lord

    Just when the earthquake strikes.

  • Matt

    Lord beat me to it! How mysterious is an earthquake?

    Not to mention a small high-speed black hole passing near the earth, disrupting its gravity momentarily!

    I’m kidding. No need to point out that either of those events would be fatal without involving the deathulum.

  • Ike

    physicist: first-order approximation

    chemist: standard deviation

    biologist: 95% confidence interval

    engineer: one sigma, two sigma, three…

    mathematician: you all infuriate me.

  • Lord

    And the answer to what long range forces are there besides gravity and em (really), they are called bullets.

  • Christina Pikas

    Hm, can I neglect gravity and friction as trivial? I wonder if I use “by inspection” …

  • John Ramsden

    > See Dawkins allow a deadly pendulum to swing to within inches of his nose!
    He explains that he is not in any danger, because there are “laws of physics”
    that ensure the pendulum doesn”t have enough energy to smash his head into
    a million gooey pieces.

    Some months ago I read an interesting diary a private wrote during his time in the Peninsular War [ ]. There were some poignant vignettes, such as he and a group of his comrades sitting on a hillside one sunny afternoon discussing the coming age of steam and all the wonders they’d live to see. But naturally there were tragedies to relate as well, and Dawkins with his pendulum game reminded me of one ghastly incident.

    Toward the end of a battle a 24 pounder cannon ball whistled over from the French lines. Having bounced a couple of times, it was rolling along the ground, a young British soldier pursued it. Seeing this, guessing his intention and with more experience knowing the likely result, a sergeant yelled at him repeatedly not to touch it. But not hearing him, or ignoring his entreaties, the new recruit stuck his foot out to stop the cannon ball. By that time the ball had apparently slowed to a crawl, and hardly seemed to be moving at all; but it still managed to knock the poor guy’s foot clean off!

  • Kuas

    Yes, by all means talk like a physicst. Whenever anyone tells you something which is true, make sure to let them know you already knew it and that you regard it as “trivial”. If they tell you something which is false, don’t just tell them they are wrong but that it is “obvious” they are wrong. If they tell you something you did not know or do not understand, make sure to make it clear that you regard this piece of information as “irrelevent”. No matter what they say, always make it clear that you are smarter than they are.

  • Erik

    LOL at comment 3.

  • Neil B.

    One thing, don’t refer to the numbers zero or one directly. Day “vanishingly small” or “vanishes,” and for one, say “unity.” Also, when talking about something you say “It is easy to see that _____” for snobbish purposes (especially when it isn’t easy.)

  • John Merryman


    With closed-minded hidebound reactionary equation-based establishment hacks like Richard Dawkins, it’s no wonder science hasn’t made any progress over the last couple of centuries.

    As someone in another profession said, “The best defence is a good offence.”
    Rather then arguing the details, which most normal people ignore, maybe science can debate the basic logic of the primary metaphysical establishment. Such as pointing out that since the absolute is a neutral base state, not an ideal form, then a spiritual absolute would be the essence out of which life rises and to which it falls, not a model of perfection from which it fell and to which it seeks to return.

    Or would that be too promiscuous?

  • andy.s

    An ansatz to the ‘Talk Like a Physicist’ problem: Throw in random German words, like ‘brehmsstahlung’ and ‘zitterbewegung’. Oh, and ‘ansatz’.

    That should work at least to first order, if you assume a spherical physicist.

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  • Anon

    Of course, had Dawkins been reading some Physics journals lately, he would get the impression that a true scientist has to be open-minded about macroscopic phenomena. For example, a true scientist may take seriously the possibility that the illusion of our local macroscopic 4-dimensional world is in fact the result of strange nonlocal precursor correlations on some screen at some infinity. A true scientist might take seriously the possibility that the past does not cause the present in the traditional way, but rather that the past may be conditioned on the present via top-down probabilities. A true scientist may take seriously that we be influenced by stuff happening in dimensions that we have not observed. A true scientist might seriously advocate spending fortunes on investigating a theory of one-dimensional objects for which not the slightest evidence has ever been seen, and spend generations constructing epicycle upon epicycle in an attempt to make it consistent with past observations, not to mention future ones. A true scientist might puzzle over the notion of the uniqueness of our experience given the basis problem in quantum mechanics, and then write that every possible quantum outcome happens in some world. A true scientist may wonder how to account for self-observation in quantum mechanics. A true scientist may consider theories that may predict slight acausal effects. A true scientist may even consider that we know hardly anything about the initial condition of the universe, if any. A true scientist might even suspect that perhaps we do not yet know everything about the physical brain processes underlying the experience, if any, of consciousness. (Note that these are not all the same true scientist.)

    Of course, in light of all this, Sean can categorically state, with absolute certainty, that no nonlocal correlation can possibly ever exist, for example, between two minds, or between a mind and a major world event, and that anyone who would bother checking should be expelled from professional associations with contempt. One has to admire his clarity of vision.

  • capitalistimperialistpig

    Personally, I would be more worried about a random fluctuation bashing my Boltzmann brain out.

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  • Hag

    Here is another “talk like a physicist” joke: two fermions walk into a bar. One of them goes up to the counter and says: “I would like a Guiness please.” His fermion comapnion immediatly smacks his forehead and grumbles:”Damn! I wanted that…”

  • Anon

    What do you call a Dawkins who relied on fancy “Newtonian mechanics,” probably based on some sort of “equations,” when doing a similar demonstration with a quantum-mechanical harmonic oscillator? Schroedinger’s Dawkins?

  • Nami

    I, personally, like Dawkins and agree with him on most issues. But his approach appears very simplistic both in his books and shows. He usually answers questions that have obvious answers but ignores more difficult questions as if they don’t exist.

  • Neil B.

    Anon: you rock! The only thing leaving me a bit cold is, to spend all that effort investigating the one-d concept etc. Deficits are too high, life is too short, etc.

  • MedallionOfFerret

    Anon–Show the evidence of the phenomena, or even evidence for the possible existence of the phenomena. That’ll show Sean! We all await your response with great anticipation! Until the time you can do so, I suggest you also cover all bets by also seeking the Great Spaghetti Monster, for which the same arguments apply.

  • John Merryman

    I know! We could spend money investigating the nature of money! Such as that it can only be saved through effective investment, for which there is far more desire then potential, so we have these credit collapses. Maybe civilization will eventually come to understand money functions as a form of public utility for economic exchange, rather then as the private property we assume. No. I don’t think the people with the money would want that. Better stick to fermions.

  • Dualist

    It’s interesting. And the name is perfect. Something like the movie “Ratatouille” where the chief cook say “Anyone can cook”. So here comes the notion, “anyone can talk like physicists”.

    making it short we can easily say, “talk like a physicists”. Physicists are insisting to talk like one of them.

  • Ole Phat Stu

    When I was 14 I had an acne problem and used to twist the zits until they emitted their pus explosively (yeuch!).

    In doing this, I torqued like a fizzy cyst ;.)

  • anonymous

    (Anon, you do rock.)

    A true scientist might also realize that there is a possible, though perhaps highly improbable, chance that the observations he had made that led him to conclude that the pendulum would not hit him in the face were in error and/or incomplete.

    All that remains then is to force the selection of that state from all possible states and voila! Pendulum in the face. (Not that I’d wish that on Dawkins.) It’s not about a force that moves the pendulum; it’s about what reinforces or destabilizes the preceding observations that lead to the expectation that the pendulum will not hit him in the face.

    (Was that a little too ‘woo woo’ for physicist talk? It’s so hard to know…)

  • Neil B.

    MedallionOfFerret, you are indulging in the fallacy that all unproven entities/hypotheses are inherently equally credible, like other dimensions/or even God versus “the flying spaghetti monster.” It depends on the credibility of *that particular thing* coming into being (or being a default to already exist), and that depends on arguments peculiar to each of those postulated entities or at least categories they belong to.

  • Lab Lemming

    At the risk of side-tracking this thread…

    Am I correct in observing that the particle plushies will fall to pieces without the existence of strings?

  • Wayne

    “Smug puss,” comments 11, 13, 14, 17, 25, 40 – Hilarity. Lab Lemming, I about feel out of my seat at that. I’m still laughing. This is good stuff guys, I’m glad Sean’s dense sarcasm folded into mass physicist comedy. I find it a shame that others need to learn the language before they can appreciate this. Classic. Newton never had this much fun.


  • mgary

    For any of you on facebook, there is now an event.
    The event is global, so feel free to add it and it will appear on your calendar. Tell your friends.

  • Jason

    He’s ripping off Walter Lewin and MIT. check this out…

    Dawkins is so full of horse pucky. He can’t present science in any meaning way to the public without going on some foolish anti-religious rant. He routinely squares off against ignorant, lightweight straw men and “wins” his arguments by a series of ad hominum attacks. Dawkins waffling is enough to impress Joe six pack or auntie , not an informed layman or auntie. Dawkins isn’t winning anyone over to the scientific view of the world. It isn’t hard for a career scientist to derail an opponent or even an informed member of the “opposition”. Dawkin’s is like a grammar school teacher winning a debate against his hapless sixth grader students. It isn’t even an intellectual exercise, it’s just snobbery. God is simply NOT a scientific question. God is a religious question. Is Dawkins even a scientist? Whatever the answer to that question may be he certain passes himself off as more of a writer, anti-theologian, and provocateur of the inexperienced and uninformed. Based on the above link, you can add copycat. I’ve wasted enough time bashing Dawkins, it’s time for me to go out and berate my fellow man for his misguided belief in Newton’s laws and his total ignorance of Hamilton’s principle and action angle variables. Well at least I stick to science…

  • Jimbo

    You nitpickers all suck !
    Dawkins is as close as we come to a 21rst century Carl Sagan, and instead of cheering him on, you wring your hands & whine about this `n that. Keepin up on current events, might lead the scientific community to `circle the wagons’, and support Dawkins, w/out reservations !
    Nothing could demo TRUST in the knowledge & reality of science more than some average John/Jane Doe repeating Dawkins’ role in the expt., devoid of fear.
    Perhaps any of the presidential candidates would care to step up to the plate ?

  • Christine

    My birthday is also March 14. :)

  • Dany

    Sean:” And, just in case you don’t know what it sounds like to talk like a physicist”


    S. Weinberg concluding comment (“Einstein and the Physics of the Future” (“Some Strangeness in the Proportions”, 506, Addison-Wesley (1980)):”I think the theoretical physicist is like the drunk in the story who has lost a quarter. He has no idea of where he lost it, but he’s looking under a lamp post because that is where the light is good. However, I always sympathize with the drunk. Because it is true. He doesn’t really know where he lost the quarter, but if he looks for it anywhere else but where the light is good, he is sure not going to find it.”


    “????? ???-?????? ??? ???? ? ?????? -
    ??? ??????, – ?? ??? ???? ?? ????!”
    (Let anywhere everything is clear and brightly -
    It is good there- but I do not need to be there!)

    Who sounds like to talk like a physicist?

    Regards, Dany.

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  • Dany

    By the way, S.W. developed his own interpretation of that story.

    I was educated on the other version:” The man has lost a quarter and he’s looking under a lamp post. One would like to help him. “Where you lost it?” Over there, about 20m from here.” If so, why you are looking here?” “Because no light there!” (“Physicists jokes”).

    Regards, Dany.

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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