Archive for February 13, 2008

Physics is like sex

Posted in G 1 with tags , , , , on February 13, 2008 by Roberto Gravitazero

“Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.”

Today I somehow came again upon this quote, which I vaguely remember to have seen before, printed as it was on the T-shirt of a well known physicist. It’s attributed to R. Feynman, physicist & Nobel prize winner, one of the icons of modern science. Behind the joke, the phrase captures in a few words several truths: not only physics (and science) makes perfect sense aside from the immediate material advantages it can confer, not only knowledge is a prize worth for itself, but its pursuit can also be a hell of a fun.

However, it’s somewhat difficult to explain why. I guess it’s a mixture of curiosity, intellectual pride, a taste for challenges and competion all rolled into one.

In any case I imagine all physicists have felt at least a few times the sense of elation that understanding something new or solving a particularly nasty problem can give. But only a few had the chance of getting a taste of “the real thing” (it’s not everybody’s fate to get married to Carla Bruni…). I’m going to clarify what I mean with this:

I remember that when I was younger, I had been intrigued by a story, most likely apocryphal, about Eddington. Eddington was perhaps the first person to realize that nuclear fusion is the process going on in the sun and other stars. The story goes like that:

“Eddington was sitting out one balmy evening together with his girl friend, just after having made his great discovery. At a certain point she said to him, – Look how bright the stars are shining, tonight.- And he replied, -Yes, and tonight I’m the only person on the earth who knows why.”

The image of a man standing under the sky studded with stars and knowing he is the first and, for a while, the only man to understand their nature, seemed then to me a powerful representation of scientific achievement at its best.

As I said, the story is likely to be untrue. Other versions put Bethe or Houtermans in place of Eddington. Curiously enough, there is a version around in which Feynman himself is narrating the story, and then concludes: “She merely laughed at him. She was not impressed with being out with the only man who, at that moment, knew why stars shine. Well, it is sad to be alone, but that is the way it is in this world.”

Which brings us back to physics and sex, or, rather, physicists and sex. Or, better still, physicists and the lack of it, as represented in the stereotypical image they still retain in the eyes of the laymen.

Yet, apart from jokes, sex has also a dark side, being often associated to sin and sometimes even to death. Eros and Thanatos both play their role in the following quote from a lifelong friend of Feynman, Freeman Dyson:

“The sin of the physicists at Los Alamos did not lie in their having built a lethal weapon. They did not just build the bomb. They enjoyed building it. They had the best time of their lives building it. That, I believe, is what Oppenheimer had in mind when he said that they had sinned.”

Like other things, sometimes physics can just be too much fun.