by Con Chapman
PRINCETON, N.J. The average IQ here is normally high, but it hits its annual peak during the Gauss-Fleckner Conference on Experimental Physics when some of the brainiest people in the world converge on the Princeton campus to listen to impenetrable papers and participate in turbulent discussions that literally change the world. “The brainstorms get pretty fierce,” says Natalie Hartnett, an administrative aide at the institute that sponsors the confab. “We post small-mind warnings around the neighborhood to make sure no one is hurt by untested theorems flying around.”
But the scientists are known for something else besides gray matter among local law enforcement officials. “We’ve had incidents over the past coupla years where we had to use pepper spray,” says Campus Police Sergeant James Hampy. “It wouldn’t be takin’ a quantum leap to say these guys get feisty when a discussion ’bout the law of thermodynamics heats up.”
Tensions began to simmer at a lecture on the speed at which the universe is expanding. “If the universe is expanding,” said Dr. Oswalt Gurney of Syracuse University during the Q&A session that followed, “what is it expanding into?”
“No, you’ve got it all wrong,” replied Dr. Fung Chen or the University of California-Irvine. “It’s like a balloon that expands in your hands.”
With that, Stuart Versch, a graduate teaching assistant, stood up and asked “Is the balloon filled with air or water?”
Dr. Chen chuckled condescendingly, then said “It really doesn’t matter which image you use,” at which point Versch hurled a water balloon at him and yelled “If it doesn’t matter, have a drink on me!”
Order was restored and the academics retired to the faculty lounge for a “Bend an Elbow–and the Space-Time Continuum!” happy hour where discussion shifted to “string theory,” an exotic theorem that some believe could harmonize all laws of physics under a single “unified field” theory.
“You’re locked into outmoded three-dimensional thinking,” chided Prof. Jeffrey Chow after listening to Dr. Philip Castrop offer his reservations about the concept. “It’s people like you who give thoughtful kooks like me a bad name.”
“I’ll show you some string theory,” Castrop said as pulled out a can of Silly String, the non-toxic spray streamer that “brings out the fun” for group events of all kinds.
“Why you . . .” Chow sputtered as he was covered with colored string by Castrop, who then ran out an exit only to reappear at a plenary session the next morning as if nothing had happened.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Castrop said when Chow confronted him at the podium. “Maybe it was my doppelganger who did it.”