Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Random Walk

Back in graduate school, someone borrowed and never returned my copy of A Random Walk in Science. May he rot and burn in hell. (Just kidding. Really.)

I just picked up a copy real cheap from eBay. Man I love that book! It a compendium of short, humorous anecdotes from mathematics and science (physics mostly—but then again, what else is there?) One interesting feature is that a fair number of them come from the Soviet Union in the height of the cold war. Many also come from the beloved Journal of Irreproducible Results.

I remember reading it in grad school and thinking that smart people are often really funny, too. Well what was true then is true now: smart people often are very funny. And since, in general, scientists are smart people, scientists are often very funny, even if just to other scientists.

What strikes me now, having reread it, is that the anecdotes it contains also depict scientists as gracious. I never considered that as a grad student. The reason, I think, is that was so obvious as to be unremarkable.

That, it seems to me, has changed. But it might be just the company I keep here on the inter-webs. A lot of the scientists you meet here are nasty and strident and anything but gracious.

Anyway, here is a flavor of A Random Walk in Science. A survey first published in Physicists continue to laugh, MIR publishing, Moscow, 1968. In appears in A Random Walk in Science on page 37.

What do Physicists Do?

In keeping with the spirits of the times the Editors of the wall newspaper 'Impulse' of the Physical Institute of the Academy of Science of the USSR have formed a Department of Sociological Investigations. Members of this department conducted a survey of the Moscow populace on the theme 'What do Physicists do?'

Population Group



They argue until hoarse in smoke-filled rooms. It is not known why they set up unintelligible dangerous experiments using huge apparatus.


They work on enormous electronic machines called electronic brains. They work mostly in the cosmos.

First year college students

They speculate a lot. They make discoveries no less than once a month.

Graduate students

They solder circuits. They ask the older ones to find the leak. They write articles.

Young scientific staff members—experimenters

They run to the equipment department. They scrub rotary vacuum pumps. They flap their ears at seminars.

Young scientific staff members—theoreticians

They converse in corridors helping to make great discoveries. They write formulae, mostly incorrect.

Older scientific staff members

They attend meetings. They help younger staff members find the leak.

Members of the personnel department

Experimenters must arrive at 8:25 so that at 8:30 they can sit silently next to apparatus that is running. Theoreticians do not work at all.

Members of the guard force

They walk back and forth. They present passes upside down.

Representatives of the Ministry of Finance

They spend money to no purpose



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