IN MY VIEW: How long is a piece of string?

A couple of years ago, I wrote a somewhat facetious column bemoaning the lack of decent (or even indecent) quantum physics jokes. So far as I can determine, then and now, there are very few quantum physics humorists and archivists of jokes, and even fewer of them are actually funny.

Dec 1st, 2011
Jeffrey Bairstow, contributing editor
Jeffrey Bairstow, contributing editor

By Jeffrey Bairstow

A couple of years ago, I wrote a somewhat facetious column bemoaning the lack of decent (or even indecent) quantum physics jokes. So far as I can determine, then and now, there are very few quantum physics humorists and archivists of jokes, and even fewer of them are actually funny.

And so a genuine knee-slapper has yet to be written. I even suggested that I would welcome new jokes for possible publication. The results were depressing and largely humorless, to say the least. The number received was embarrassingly small.

Here’s an example of a widely circulated quantum mechanics joke whose origin I do not know. I doubt that is copyrighted, although there may be a “Creative Commons” license for the original joke somewhere in our galaxy.

The famous physicist Dr. Werner Heisenberg was driving one day in the Santa Clara Mountains when he was pulled over by a California highway patrolman.

Q: “Sir! Do you know how fast you were going?”

A: “No, I don’t, but I do know exactly where I am, officer.” The rest of this conversation was not reported.

Get it? According to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, an observer cannot know both speed and position of a particle. An increase in the accuracy of one will result in a decrease of the other. Thus Werner could offer the patrolman the exact value of one variable but not both at one time.

The Heisenberg joke is thought by physicists to be relatively sophisticated. However, the usual run-of-the-mill quantum physics joke is more along these pedestrian lines:

Q: “What’s the difference between a quantum mechanic and a regular auto mechanic?”

A: “A quantum mechanic can put his car in the garage without opening the door.” Ho-hum.

As with all these jokes, one often hears this sort of thing:

Q: “When were you born, Professor Heisenberg?”

A: “I’m not really sure.” Equally ho-hum.

Or if you really wish to scrape the bottom of the barrel:

A neutron walks into a wookie bar and orders a beer. He drains his glass and asks for his tab.

“For you, no charge,” says the barkeep.

There are several variations on this theme. Two electrons are having an argument:

Q: “Are you sure you are in your proper orbit?”

A: “I’m positive.” And the jokes get weaker as they get wider circulation.

I had once thought that the relatively recent developments in far-out string theory might be fertile ground for jokes. Wrong!

Brian Greene is a devoted advocate of string theory and is an amusing anchorman for the recent Nova PBS series “The Fabric of the Cosmos.” But no luck there. Greene has some nice visuals but nothing on the form of “I had a funny thing happen to me on my way to this television studio.”

Although I am not an avid devotee of string theory, Greene makes as good a case as I have seen for the basics of string theory.

When he can answer my metaphysical question “How long is a piece of string?” then I will be prepared to become a convert. If Professor Greene can do that with a good joke, then so much the better.

But don’t hold your breath (metaphysically or otherwise)!

Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor
inmyview@yahoo.com

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