Sunday, July 15, 2012

Parody Conservation: The Tradition of Humor at the Niels Bohr Institute

Posted by on 07/15 at 06:40 PM

This is an excerpt from my recent talk at the Three Societies Conference:

During the 1930s it was a tradition at Niels Bohr’s Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen to end each of its annual conferences with a comic performance involving institute members. While the most famous of these was a production of Faust, there were other, lesser-known productions. Another tradition, that carried on into the 1950s, was to honor Bohr’s major birthdays (50th, 60th and 70th) with satirical works.

The first in a series of annual conferences in theoretical physics was held at Bohr’s Institute in 1929.  Historian Finn Aaserud, Director of the Niels Bohr Archive, has noted their informality, their lack of a set agenda, and their culmination in comical performances written and acted by their participants.  As physicist George Gamow, who worked at the NBI, reported:

“It became customary at the end of each spring conference at Blegdamsvej 15 (the then street address of Bohr’s Institute of Theoretical Physics) to produce a stunt pertaining to recent developments in physics.” (George Gamow, Thirty Years that Shook Physics: The Story of Quantum Theory, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1966.)

Most famous among these productions was a parody of Faust, with Mephistopheles represented as Pauli, Faust portayed as Ehrenfest and Gretchen as Pauli’s neutral particle (now known as the neutrino).  However there were other productions, including a version of “Around the World in 80 Days” satirizing a long voyage from which Bohr had recently returned.  For that production Casimir constructed a mock Himalayas out of white paper and stepladders, which Niels Bohr’s son Aage crossed.  Weisskopf portrayed the Dalai Lama.  In another play,
cosmic ray showers were mimicked by water-dunking, in which Werner Heisenberg reportedly got soaked.

In honor of Bohr’s 50th, 60th and 70th birthdays, his associates produced the “Journal of Jocular Physics.” It shared much with Faust in terms of rich veins of cynical humor.

In the third volume of Jocular Physics, published in 1955, one of the article satirized the flood of articles from CERN and suggested a template.  Given Schwinger’s productivity, one of the items in the template was “According to Schwinger.”

It is interesting to note that CERN was the subject of recent jokes when one of the teams reporting a new particle discovery (possibly the Higgs boson) used Comic Sans font for its presentation.  In honor of that jest, I used Comic Sans for the slide describing CERN.

More about this topic will be in my upcoming article: "Quantum Humor: The Playful Side of Physics at Bohr’s Institute for Theoretical Physics" to appear in Physics in Perspective

Tags: copenhagen, faust, humor, journal of jocular physics, niels bohr institute, quantum mechanics