FROM THE ARCHIVES: tit for tat

InlovejenlucI've been at the National Association of Science Writers meeting all weekend (on Twitter: #sciwrite10), and will get around to blogging about that and Cool Science later in the week. But for now, I'm still on the road, and deadlines beckon. So here's a snarky humor piece from 2008, riffing on an earlier piece that went on to spawn even more versions. I expect the meme will flare up again one of these years, just like all those Friday the 13th movies.

Good Internet humor never really dies; it just languishes for awhile in the dusty archives until a new crop of browsers stumbles upon its cheeky goodness. Such is the case with Simon Dedeo's "Physical Theories as Women" essay on the McSweeney's Website, which has been making the rounds again in the science blogosphere. (At least, the Spousal Unit assures us it's an older article, and he, like, knows Dedeo from their Windy City days.) Far be it for us to take umbrage at the amusing characterizations of our gender contained therein — c'mon, we all know those stereotypical females exist in one form or another. But I do think, in the interests of fair play, the women should have their own version while we're having fun with the battle of the sexes.

Ergo, I offer today's frivolous blog post: "Physical Theories as Men." And I offer it with a disclaimer: Any similarity to actual events or persons, living or dead, is sheer coincidence, and greatly exaggerated for comic effect. Except for the Irish artist. That totally happened.

0. Newtonian gravity is that guy you had a crush on in high school. You never really dated, but you spent a lot of time together, and once you even made out in the science lab after school over a partially dissected fetal pig. It didn't go well. Things were kinda awkward after that, but you remained friendly from a distance. Or so you thought. Years later, you find out he told everyone you were a frigid lesbian — even though he was the one who wouldn't go past second base because he "respected" you too much. To paraphrase Whistler, the helpful demon from Buffy (Season 2): "Newtonian gravity is like dating a nun. You're never gonna get the good stuff." You suspect he may have been gay.

1. Electrodynamics is your first real boyfriend, and all your friends swear he's quite the catch: well-educated, ambitious, clean-cut, amusing, great chemistry, plus you love his mom. Alas, he is Mr. Traditional Family Values, and you are still going through your experimental "finding yourself" phase — frankly, you're just not ready to settle down. Sure, opposites attract and make the sparks fly, but there has to be some complementary areas, too. You think he cares too much about what other people think. Your electro-shock blue Mohawk and multiple body piercings pretty much take you out of the running for Long-Term Potential, given his conservatism and career ambitions. When your differences become too great, you chalk it up to life lessons learned and move on to greener pastures.Mrmrssmith_narrowweb__300x4522

2. Special Relativity is the wild, free-thinking rebel intent on smashing all those outmoded "rules" that say he can't go faster than the speed of light — preferably while listening to the dulcet tones of The Sex Pistols and Rage Against the Machine. He's colorful, exciting and just a wee bit dangerous after the rather plodding predictability of Newtonian gravity and electrodynamics. So you fall for the flash — at first. But after awhile, his inability to sit still wears thin. It seems the more he rushes about, the more constricted you feel, and your "dates" just seem to stretch on for eternity. The sex isn't all that great, either, frankly: you've never been a size queen, but a girl's still got standards, and length contraction has clearly taken its toll.

3. Quantum Mechanics is that weird, nutty counter-culture guy who's always got his finger on the pulse of the Latest Thing, before it hits the mainstream and "sells out." He just can't commit — not to you, not to anything. Sometimes you're not sure you even know who he is, because every time you try to study him closely, he changes. Is he a particle or a wave? Aquarius, or Pisces (he swears he was born on the cusp)? Good guy or spherical bastard (or perhaps an asymmetrical asshole)? Gay or straight, or rabidly omni-sexual? You spend months, sometimes years, fretting over this romantic superposition of states. When the wave function finally collapses, it's never in your favor. He makes you feel hopelessly mainstream.

4. General Relativity is the solid salt-of-the-earth type of guy that you know you should probably be crazy about — especially after that jerkwad quantum mechanics shattered your heart into a million pieces. You have a good time with him: he's smart, orderly, disciplined, and can bend and warp with the flow when life gets too heavy. But there's just no romantic spark there, and a dire lack of physical chemistry.  Face it: you're not in love. It seems a cruel, cruel irony.

5. Quantum Field Theory is that scruffy wannabe Irish artist spending the summer in New York City mooching off various acquaintances and far-too-trusting females. He actually brags about being on the dole back in London. That should have been your first clue. But he's cute, and smart, with a lilting Irish brogue, and makes you look at Rauschenberg with fresh appreciative eyes, although you still think Ellsworth Kelly is a crock. You decide he's worth a tumble, because it's been awhile, plus he assures you he's going back home in a couple of days and you need never see him again.

Alas, he gets so drunk telling you all this, spinning his web of deceit, that when you finally get down to business, he literally passes out on top of you — in flagrante delicto. This, after you paid for all those drinks because he didn't have any cash and his credit cards were maxed out to the limit. You console yourself by recalling that the same thing happens to Liv Tyler's character in Stealing Beauty. Two weeks later, you run into him at an art-house film festival with another girl in tow. He pretends not to know you. It's not like you were all that into the guy, but your pride takes a bit of a beating. Quantum field theory is a cheap, lying bastard. And they're saving a chair for him in Alcoholics Anonymous.

6. Analytical Classical Mechanics is the self-absorbed, older intellectual that you date because you've decided you're tired of immature physical theories who refuse to grow up and take some responsibility. He's a bit pretentious and likes to pontificate about science as a social construct. He's also a snob: he listens only to classical music, and despises all popular culture (excepting the films of Ingmar Bergman). You know, the type that brags about not owning a TV whenever one of your pals mentions their favorite program. This gets awfully tedious very quickly and you start to get snippy and irritable. Sensing your boredom, he dumps you first, condescendingly assuring you that "one day you'll understand," and get over the heartbreak. In fact, you feel liberated and celebrate with pitchers of margaritas and a marathon viewing of MacGuyver.

7. String Theory is the sensitive, complex emo guy with an impossibly brilliant mind and lots of emotional problems. In fact, he's been in therapy practically since birth. He constantly complains that nobody understands him, and he's right: sometimes it's like he's speaking an entirely different language. You're fascinated because he's got so many dimensional levels and seems to vibrate with a mysterious energy. Besides, you think you can help him overcome his intractable problems. You are deluding yourself. His interest in your simplistic three-spatial-dimensioned presence wanes in record time, and he starts passively-aggressively acting out. You suspect he wants to break up with you but just doesn't have the balls to say so. He denies this when you confront him, insisting you can "work things out," but then you find out he's been having a fling with Loop Quantum Gravity, after swearing he hates her GUTs.

8. And Cosmology? Well duh. That's the guy you marry. Because you know he sees the Big Picture, and he'll be in it for the long haul.

 

24 thoughts on “FROM THE ARCHIVES: tit for tat”

  1. You deserve an award for the geekiest physics pun for the quip about string theory and loop quantum gravity. Kudos for another example of your clever wit. I’m convinced you’re one of the most brilliant writers on the ‘net.

  2. I second Ben’s motion. This is one of the best blog posts I think I’ve ever read…
    If only I could convince discovery to publish phrases such as “frigid lesbian,” “cheap lying bastard,” etc.

  3. The only danger with cosmologists is that they usually start the relationship with a big bang, and then everything starts cooling down. 😉 Sorry, I just couldn’t resist.

  4. I think you’ve got it wrong. Everyone says that things are bound to slow down, that the gavity of the situation is too much to over come. But it doesn’t happen. You find yourself moving faster than ever and can’t explain why. Perhaps it’s because your not sure what matter ‘s.

  5. Don’t forget alchemy and phlogiston: you’re up in the attic, stumble across your mom’s photo album from before she met Dad, and… ZOMG! the weird outfits, the unbelievable hair… what could she (or anyone) possibly have seen in them?

  6. Thermodynamics is the guy you’re never really into, who helps you move into a new apartment/dorm, even while you’re dating Electrodynamics or Special Relativity. By the time Quantum comes along, he realizes it’s hopeless.

  7. And continuing from thermodynamics, continuum mechanics is your handyman. Neither of you were ever interested, and but he’s the only reason anything around you actually works.

  8. Your take on QFT must be a girl thing. To me, a middle-aged, white, heterosexual male, QFT has always been smart and yet grounded in the real world, and with a sense of humour and an easy charisma – someone you would have liked to be your friend when you were young enough for such things to matter – and personified by one of its ace exponents – Gerardus ‘t Hooft.

  9. Hi Jennifer, been a little busy with building work at the villa (and little or no time for the internet or blogging in July)
    A sort of working holiday – lol!
    But I hope to have time to catch up and keep abreast of my favourite blogs in August.
    Good to see you still going strong

  10. Sorry, jongleur, but Jennifer got that one right. QFT is a lying scrounger who promises everything and delivers nothing. If I had been her, I would not have even have let the son-of-a-bitch touch me.

  11. I wonder whether JO realizes that cosmology is still the same boring GR guy who bends when life gets heavy and who has no romantic spark.
    It was also a pleasure to see how the description of myself was similar to the story about quantum mechanics. 😉

  12. Dude, seriously? You’re knocking “Cosmology” on my own blog? That’s… actually rather amusing. Of course, if you relate so much to quantum mechanics (“Gay, straight, or omnisexual?”), that might explain the obsession. 🙂 But our good friend Lubos raises an interesting point: I kinda skimped on the details on Cosmology (mostly because I thought it was punchier without them).
    Here’s why you marry Cosmology: he’s NOT the same boring GR guy with no romantic spark. You (and many others) have made this mistake in the past, because you lacked the perception and emotional maturity that comes with life experience to appreciate the subtle difference between the two… and all the others. See, there was a reason you flirted with all those other physical theories: each had admirable qualities that you admired and desired in a physical theory; they just had some serious shortcomings as well that made them unsuitable for long-term potential, even though you tried really hard to convince yourself otherwise at the time. Cosmology combines the best of all of them and uses them to reinvent the universe continually. It’s never a dull moment with Cosmology, plus there’s long-term stability besides…

  13. Dear Jennifer, thanks for your sophisticated answer but I don’t understand it too well, preferring to escape back to the real, 10+-dimensional world. 🙂 My hint was however much more elementary than how you presented it and it is this: Maybe you married GR, not cosmology. For example, the book he wrote is called “Spacetime and Geometry: An Introduction to General Relativity”. 😉
    I agree that cosmology is about the long run (long time scales and long distances), but so is general relativity. On the other hand, high-energy physics is about the short time processes. The long time scale associated with GR and cosmology is inseparable from their lack of a romantic spark. On the other hand, the QFT and stringy things are about the short-lived processes and sensations but they usually occur many times, filling the spacetime as well. 😉 Also, you shouldn’t forget that GR and cosmology get overruled by QFT and string theory when the life of a new Universe begins. GR is simply not enough for that.
    There is one more heavily disputed girl whose name is time-reversal symmetry. Both high-energy physics and (your) cosmology claim that she belongs to us. We say that time-reversal symmetry (and other symmetries) get restored at short distances and simple systems and they are broken by thermodynamical phenomena (with many degrees of freedom), i.e. at long distances. Your GR hubbie likes to claim the opposite, namely that She becomes unbroken in his cosmological regime (and eggs break or should break as often as they unbreak). Of course, he is totally and fundamentally wrong.
    I don’t particularly identify with either of the anthropomorphic comments but yes, I have been told the things not only from your string theory paragraph but also some of those from the QM paragraph. For example, omnisexuality is a frequent explanation why I think that men’s and women’s cognitive approaches differ – except that those who disagree usually use tougher words and their identity usually remains unknown. 🙂
    But putting these features of particular persons aside, I think that you have understood the correct societal spirit of various disciplines in physics. For example, string theory plays a very similar role relatively to general relativity as QM plays relatively to Newton’s theory etc.: after all, the newer theory is the quantization of the previous one.
    At the societal level, it means that the QM/string people may be crazier, further from the average, they enjoy deviations, paradigm shifts, and the search for the new “uncommon sense” if you wish – that’s an important driving force of their research -, while the classical physicists often bend continuously with the status quo and “normal science” where we never learn something that is genuinely qualitatively new is their dream about ideal science.
    I don’t want to say that this is a general rule that extends from the theories to all of their practitioners but I am convinced that there exists a correlation of this kind. Of course, science requires both of these strategies and good scientists, of course, have both of these chromosomes.

  14. Here’s another slant on the concept:
    http://scienceblogs.com/principles/2008/07/physical_theories_squeak_when.php
    Physical Theories Squeak When You Chew Them
    “The Internet is silly!”
    I turn around from the computer. “Yes it is,” I say to the dog, “But what, specifically, makes you say that?”
    “All these posts about physics theories. Comparing them to women and men and stupid wizards, and relationships. It’s silly.”
    “Yes, well, it does seem to be the diversion of the moment.”
    “Anyway, they’ve got it all wrong. Physics theories are like my toys.”
    “oh, god…” I was afraid of this.
    . . . . . . . . .
    He even gets technical:
    “Quantum mechanics is an odd-shaped squeaky toy, like my anime cat, or the demon squeaky ball. You think you know where it’s going to go, but then it takes a weird bounce, and you have to chase it some more. But when you get it, it makes all kinds of cool squeaky noises when you chew it.”
    “That makes a certain amount of sense…”
    “Also, if you chew the legs off, it gets easier to catch.”
    “How do you chew the legs off quantum mechanics?”
    “Ummm…. The WKB approximation?”

  15. Physics is overrated except as it intersects with biology.
    From my side of noogenenesis, and biology, I’d have to make room for Big Bangs, Red Shift and Black Holes in a physical science characterization of my history with the superior gender.
    And no pun was intended.

  16. Now all we need a “physical theories as women” … and this blog will erupt into flames, creating a two-pole singularity that will engulf the entire Universe. Yahoo!
    BTW, I find your reference to Cosmology a bit Ouelettecentric. Hmmm, I wonder why 😉

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