Nerd humor

I love science and physics in particular: it’s not that I think about it 24/7 but it intertwines with my life and thoughts more often than not. So here is my first contribution to the genre of nerd humor: let me know if you have the same nag and would like to share your creations with the outside world.
P.S. I can promise anonymity if you like ;-)

I had troubles opening the fridge the other day: it was so empty that the Casimir force almost prevented me from opening the door.

This scientific joke is pure romance! I found it online a while ago and don’t remember if it came from Howard.


Umorismo nerd

Mi scuseranno i miei due lettori ma la mia passione per le scienze mi porta anche a concepire dell’umorismo nerd. La seguente freddura ha appena preso forma nella mia immaginazione: la incido su questa pietra virtuale con la minaccia di produrne (e condividerne) altre in futuro.

P.S. ovviamente siete invitati a contribuire, se ve la sentite, anche in maniera anonima.

Qual è la particella elementare più fastidiosa?
Il gluone, perché s’accolla.

Up to speed with TBBT

I have been a fan of The Big Bang Theory show for a while now and I’ve been thinking on and off about its use as an outreach tool, that’s to say I was eager to use the references made in TBBT episodes about physics and science as a handle on the public curiosity to know more of what might lie behind them. I gave it a go on this post of mine a while ago but haven’t gotten back to it ever since.

This past Summer I attended a Teachers Workshops organized by ESA, the European Space Agency, and I had the chance to discuss with inspired folks from all over EU. As I compared notes on practices and challenges in education at 360 degrees, I brought TBBT idea up with a colleague from Scotland and she strongly encouraged me to go forth with that here on my blog. So, thanks to Eileen, here’s my first instance of “Up to speed with TBBT”, where the rhyme is of course intended ;-)

Let me start this thread with episodes from Season 9.

  • Episode 1 “The Matrimonial Momentum”. In physics momentum is used to describe mass in motion: it can be linear or angular, according to the motion being a straight trajectory or a rotation. It depends on mass and velocity, that is to say: how fast a mass is moving, how large the mass is and how this mass is distributed in space.
    A typical example of angular momentum is the one of a skater, which also shows how momentum is conserved: when the skater pulls her arms back, she reduces the spread of her mass in space, which gives her body the ability to turn faster on herself than she was doing with her arms wide open.
  • Episode 2 “The Separation Oscillation”. When something oscillates it goes from one position or state to another, like a pendulum or my mood these days. Oscillation is the subject of this year Nobel in Physics, which awarded yet another acknowledgement to the understanding of neutrinos. They are called the chameleons of space because they can change clothes as they move at almost the speed of light and, believe it or not, they are going through your bodies in droves as you read about them, which is why they can only be caught with detectors like this one

Dr Neil DeGrasse Tyson in Super-Kamiokande Neutrino Detector – (Image Credit:

  • Episode 3, “The Bachelor Party Corrosion”. In this episode Sheldon is kidnapped in a van, not just any van but Richard Feynman’s, the late Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech. Feynman is famous for playing bongos (as Sheldon does in a previous episode) and for inventing some hieroglyphs that helped physicists communicate and calculate the effects of a theory in the making: these pictograms came to be known as Feynman diagrams and are part of the advancements for which Feynman received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965. This is more than enough for anyone to paint them on his van, as Feynman did.

    Professor Feynman poses with his family in front of his van, which he decorated with instances of his very own visual handle on particle physics.

    Professor Feynman poses with his family in front of his van, which he decorated with instances of his very own visual handle on particle physics.

  • Episode 4, “The 2003 Approximation”. In this episode Sheldon’s bothered by the many changes he’s unwillingly going through: due to disruptive discontinuities in his life he can no longer function under the same paradigm he’s followed until then. Just like he’d do with a new, buggy operation system on his laptop or smartphone, he decides to go back to a previous version, in which he was more stable and efficient. I used the expressions “paradigm” and “version” but I could as well said “model”. In fact in science an approximation is a model that accurately describes a phenomenon under certain circumstances but it’s not the whole story: it doesn’t mean the model is wrong but just that you can’t use it for every situation. The Standard Model of particle physics is a good working theory of most of the known elementary phenomena but it does not explain neutrinos’ masses … or dark matter … or dark energy. I plan to talk about the dark side of the universe in a dedicated post but let me stop here for now coz Saturday night is laundry night ;-)

Before concluding I’d like to extend my warmest greetings to Eileen and all the teachers from UK who welcomed me in their group, for both professional exchanges and a lot of craic!

Emotions from out of this world

In this post I will start what I plan to turn into a tradition: pointing at interesting, curious bits, either of various subjects or grouped by a common theme, like here. The thread of this first post is represented by earthly manifestations of space that are linked to emotions. Here they are in sparse order, enjoy!

Neanche Hawking

Neanche Hawking sa che cosa c’è
dietro a quel punto che più nero non ce n’è;
può sudare, lui ha pensato
ma lì non si è fermato.
Un amico suo ha capito,
e si è anche divertito,
che se un libro è un buco nero
allora è proprio strano per davvero:
le sue storie variegate
sono tutte condensate
non sulle pagine all’interno

ma sulla copertina che è all’esterno.bla

Basta il nome “buco nero”
a indicare che è un mistero:
che succede se ci cado, dov’è che me ne vado?
Divento un fuoco d’artificio
o uno spaghetto come al pastificio?
E se ci verso una tazza di tè, di lei che ne è?
Il liquido è assorbito ma il calore è sparito?
E se fosse latte freddo la sua colazione?
Che ne sarebbe di quest’informazione?
Tante cose noi sappiamo,
molte più ne ricerchiamo;
la spinta è la curiosità
la compagnia la creatività.

Not even Hawking

Don’t know what a black hole is? Don’t worry: not even Hawking does. Not completely at least. Of course he’s among the best positioned to have a quite detailed picture but, as you might have noticed from recent press, the (in)famous black hole monster is still an open research problem for the whole scientific community who’s been working on it for the past 40 years! Yeah: that’s how difficult the problem is, so don’t feel too small.

Professor Stephen Hawking pictured against the language he likes to speak: though his body has been imprisoned for decades, his mind has never been.

Black holes stare at us with their load of secrets as they sit at the crossroad of physics’ most comprehensive theories. The first one is Einstein’s theory of gravity, called General Relativity, which accounts for the movement of very large objects in the universe and even the history of the cosmos itself; the second theory is called Quantum Mechanics and describes the very small and quirky realm of infinitesimal particles. Both theories were heavily influenced by Einstein, who helped jumpstart the quantum revolution and completely molded General Relativity. Hawking & Co. are right in Einstein’s tracks, as black holes find themselves at the convergence of Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity: understanding them fully is poised to bring a revolution in physics.

There's no being more iconic than ending up on a t-shirt. By the way, if you happen to know where I could find this specific one, please let me know: I have been looking for it for almost 20 years now!

There’s no being more iconic than ending up on a t-shirt. By the way, if you happen to know where I could find this specific one, please let me know: I have been looking for it for almost 20 years now!

The problem physicists have been working on since the 60’s is called the black hole information loss paradox and can be encapsulated in one very simple question “what happens if you pour a cup of tea on a black hole“? This is an example of how physicists work: they ask “what if … ?” and embark in the ensuing adventure.

Just so I clear the doubt once and for all: most of the times these questions are explored by scientists in collaboration and, even if a single one makes great strides and becomes famous, like Einstein and Hawking, at least they rely on previous hard work by other smart people. So the reason why I take Hawking here as representative of the endeavor is because, as Einstein, he’s an iconic character.

Back to business, what happens if you pour a cup of tea on a black hole? The tea itself would disappear because black holes suck everything, as you might already know, even though this only happens in their proximity, so, unless you go poke the bear, a black hole is not dangerous.

What about the heat of the tea? is it gone, too? is there a way from the outside to reconstruct the characteristics of what went in the black hole? had it been a cup of equally hot milk, would we be able to tell the difference by inspecting the black hole? or, in current physics parlance, can we retrieve information from a black hole?

Notice that I said that, in order to know what happens to the cup of tea, we would “inspect” the black hole, I didn’t say we’d ”look at it” for a very precise reason: black holes do not reflect the light impinging on them, as do objects we can see (if you had never thought about the ability of seeing in these terms, try for a moment to picture yourself at night, shining a torch ON objects so that they can bounce light back at your eyes).

Hawking has already contributed a smart idea to the problem of how reticent black holes can be about what they have hidden in their interiors. Forty years ago, he figured black holes can sweat! He did not use these exact words and so far I haven’t heard anyone else using them but that’s a way I think can ease the understanding of Hawking radiation, as his proposal came to be known.

It turns out that calling space empty is a misnomer: even when devoid of matter particles, space is full of other stuff we do not see other than through its effects. Imagine you are on the top of a mountain, contemplating the panorama around you, especially the mountains summits framing your horizon; between the mountain you’re sitting on and the mountains at the horizon there’s no other mountain: there’s an emptiness of mountains. However, there might be fields in between, covering the valleys hidden by the clouds: lavender fields, corn fields, etc. That’s the closest I can go to the situation in space: between Earth and the Moon, and between us and the Sun, there does not seem to be anything but in reality there are so-called fields, such as the electromagnetic field and the gravitational field.

From summit to summit one could think of there being nothing but fog, however, below the fog there could be beautiful flower fields. This situation can serve as a parallel to physical fields permeating space, even when we’d call it empty.

A field is like The Force, not the physics concept but the Star Wars one, an entity that permeates space and that you do not see directly with your eyes but it has visible effects, such as Yoda lifting a spaceship. In the case of physics the electromagnetic field is responsible for magnets feeling each other’s presence and for connecting you with the world through a mobile phone.

As much as flower fields can wave in the wind, physical fields oscillate, too: instead of setting daisies free in the air, they liberate particles, sometimes in entangled couples, letting them exist for a blink of an eye before they disappear again in the expanse of the field. Hawking understood that for fields around black holes the reabsorption of the particle pairs would not go as unnoticed as the emission: if one of them were sucked by the black hole, the other would be able to fly away, free from its former binding companion.

For more on entangled particles as loving companions, see my newest rhymes. This work of art is “Entanglement”, by artist Anna Chromy, which “features the beliefs of the artist in its baroque composition mixed with the erotic appearance of bodies enjoying the antics of love and dance. The amazing excellence of the work is noticeable in the undulating figures which are, simultaneously, real and imaginary. The movement of the lovers portrays the perspective of their dancing in a marriage that is both rational and personal. Their dance turns into a dance of 4 bodies and not just a pas-de-deux. Enveloping these figures, Chromy has generated a womb-like environment that encompasses these forms in a textural life of lumination and darkness.”

The particle ending up inside the black hole is such that, by swallowing it, the black hole takes a loss in energy, thus reducing its mass. The particle escaping to infinity instead has a temperature, so from afar it looks like the black hole emitted heat, which cost it work: in due time (a very large one) the black hole would sweat itself away or, as Hawking and Co say, it would evaporate.

Unfortunately, the energy regurgitated in this way by the black hole carries no information about what its meal has been. It would seem there’s no way to know what made the black hole sweat, hence the information loss paradox: information should not be destroyed but just transformed, like energy (if you understand French there’s a science poem of mine about energy I’d like to suggest).

If information is not destroyed, where does the black hole hide it then? Hawking has just proposed something in accordance to others before him, that information is stored on the black hole horizon, the surface of no return if you incidentally crossed it. This is a big deal for a very good reason that we can all understand. Imagine you were at the library and you were wondering how many interesting stories and theories and facts were written inside those thick books, on their millions of pages. You’d be surprised if the librarian, some Jacob Bekenstein, came to you and said that, in his library, books wear their stories on their jackets only: they do not need pages for storing their tales. That’s exactly what the late Prof. Bekenstein had found about black holes’ storage habits in the ’60s, before Hawking contributed his pieces to the puzzle.

I think this account is enough to give you an idea of what is keeping Hawking and colleagues’ mind in check; if you want to deal with the matter further see the “Backreaction” blog. Last but not least, in case you had other metaphors useful to convey a sense of the many weird features of black holes, do not hesitate to let me know, either in private or through the comments.