Posts Tagged Harvard

Harvard, Ice Cream, and Quantum Mechanics

Posted by on Saturday, 13 February, 2010



A long, long time ago, Joel, Doug, and MISTER ScienceAintSoBad were in line for an ice cream cone in Harvard Square.

I can’t remember, exactly, why, but Joel said (not for the first time) that “People are morons.”

Mister (not at that time) ScienceAintSoBad sturdily defended you.

“Not all of them.”

“That’s what YOU think. They don’t know crap!”

“You do?”

Three guys in line for ice cream.. You don’t want the whole transcript. However, it led to a “test” (we were young, remember). We decided to ask people in the line about electrons.

We would be easy graders. The interviewee didn’t have to know a lot. The answer could be “part of an atom”, “a tiny something that’s part of stuff”, “a particle”, “some small shmatta from physics” – just some indication that he.she knew what we were talking about.

So we did the survey. We asked ten customers, one by one. And this is what happened.

Nobody knew the answer.

One person – a high school girl, I think – knew it was “something in science” so she got a passing grade.

Everybody else was stumped. Most of them shrugged their shoulders or looked confused or were afraid that they were on Candid Camera.

Why bring this up?

Not because Joel was right about people being stupid. THEY weren’t making idiots out of themselves in an ice cream shop. But if this shop, which was a few hundred yards from Harvard (gasp!) University was even a little representative of the intelligent beings that inhabit our planet, then they (those intelligent beings) certainly didn’t give a lime sherbert’s damn about physics. Or abstract theories. Or natural philosophy. Or what-have-you.

You’re gonna say you have some issues with my methodology. That is wasn’t scientific.

But that’s not the point.

The point is that the “deeper” more abstract things are a hard sell with the average person. It’s just not what people think about.


MISTER ScienceAintSoBad can tell when you’re interested.

You know that little shmagegge on the upper right of the screen? It counts the visitors.

When we do an article about PRACTICAL things like the effects of salt on your health or a new cancer drug or a new breakthrough in hypnotic suggestion that turns teenagers into sweet, docile, uncomplaining saints, that thing GOES! The individual numbers get blurry and it goes whirr, whirr, whirr.

BUT when we do something really INTERESTING, something of PROFOUND SCIENTIFIC IMPORT such as the continuing effort to understand dark matter or dark energy or research into the true nature of the universe (quantum mechanics or string theory, for example), it stutters, hesitates, shivers, and staggers like it’s developed a case of frozen neuron disease.

This tells me that if I want lots of customers (and, by the way, the readership of Science Ain’t So Bad has been growing and thank you) I should stay away from deep science.

Unfortunately, because of a contract I have with myself, that’s not gonna happen so you can either go away with something new or (more likely) just skip the good stuff.

I hope you’ll, at least, give me a chance on the esoterica. It’ll make you a better person.

And, how can you be sure it won’t come up in a job interview?

You’ll be SO happy to learn that I’m adding book reviews to Science Ain’t So Bad and the first review – not finished yet – is going to be Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe.

Which doesn’t have a THING in it that’ll relieve the symptoms of a cold.