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How Scientists Party 

What happens at a physics and astronomy party? Pickles glow. Carrots explode. Nitrous burns.

Wednesday, Jan 5 2005
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Every year around finals time, scientists from San Francisco State University gather at the house I was raised in for the Holiday Physics and Astronomy Party. My father, Dr. Roger Bland, a veteran physicist at the university, has hosted this event for the past 15 years, and I've attended nearly every time. The party, which has achieved near-legend status among the faculty, is a rare opportunity for brilliant scientists and their burnt-out students to mingle, to revel in the underlying silliness of their field, to loosen their neckties after the long semester, to have a few drinks, and to light up the night with electricity and fire.

The first group of guests this year arrived at 7 p.m., tromping in the front door with a spark-generating Tesla coil, a pot of liquid nitrogen, some blowtorches, and a case of Heineken. By 8:30 the alcohol was flowing, the music was thumping, and the whole place was swarming with nerds. There was hardly room to move, yet the throngs parted gracefully for my dad as he made his way from the kitchen to the living room to announce the first event.

He clinked his wineglass with a fork and hollered, "Now begins the Equation-Editing Shootout!"

There were a few cheers, but many of the students looked puzzled. They'd heard about this annual gathering from the old-timers, about how their professors historically got drunk, set things on fire, and acted like delinquents, and they wondered if the party, like an aging rock band, had finally lost its edge.

It was certainly a slow beginning to the famous fete. A Microsoft Word window was projected onto the living room wall as the first contestant, a lady professor, took a seat at the computer desk. A man with a stopwatch said, "Go!," and she began to type. Her goal was to transcribe from a textbook a long and tedious quantum mechanical wave function -- and to do it in the least time possible. As a configuration of numbers and Greek lettering began to unfold on the wall, the grad students paid close attention. They sipped their beers and nodded in approval as the equation filled out. It took a full six minutes for the professor to finish, and when she did, there was a round of applause, and a voice shouted, "Yeah! That's what I'm talkin' about!"

I looked up at the screen, but all I saw was this:

In past years at the Physics and Astronomy Party, I've seen Ph.D.s get high on helium, vacuum-sealed oil drums collapse under the weight of our atmosphere, a giant weather balloon expand across the living room, and balloons full of propane go up in flames in the back yard, so this new event did seem a bit tame. I spotted my father hovering near a huge bowl of tamales, waved him over, and suggested that we get a new act in motion for the laymen in the crowd: "I think they're hoping to see something explode."

"Yeah," he said through a mouthful of pork and cornmeal, "I'd say it's about time for the liquid nitrogen."

From behind the Christmas tree, my father produced a vat of supersubfreezing liquid, a common light bulb, and a half-dozen safety goggles. While the next contestant in the Shootout stationed himself at the keyboard, Dr. Bland plugged in some wires, handed out the glasses, and prepared to lower the glowing bulb into the steaming pot. "This," he said, "is what happens when 3,000 Fahrenheit meets 77 Kelvin! Fire in the hole!"

The bulb dropped, and the crowd collectively held its breath -- but nothing happened. The light bulb remained lit for three seconds in the vat, then fizzled. Dr. Bland furrowed his brow like a man immersed in thought; synapses in his brain fired and sent off electrical currents this way and that to retrieve notes and textbooks from the cerebral shelves, to check the facts and figures related to the matter, to try to understand what had -- or had not -- happened.

But the semester was over, and it didn't really matter. He shrugged and grabbed a carrot from a nearby vegetable platter. I saw what was coming -- the Liquid Nitrogen Smash-Out, a foolproof, tested-and-true crowd-pleaser. He dunked the carrot for 10 seconds and then shattered it like glass over the coffee table. "Anyone else want to try?" he asked as he set the bubbling vat on the floor.

Everyone did, of course, and frozen shrapnel began to fly. When the vegetables ran out, the participants went for napkins, tamale husks, flowers from the vase, and branches from the Christmas tree. Almost everything except fingers became fodder for the smashing, and the carpet was soon littered with debris.

It's long been a tradition at the Physics and Astronomy Party to plug wires into a dill pickle and set it aglow. It's a simple trick that takes place on the back-deck table, and at this year's gathering a student was given the job of sinking the wires into either end of the vegetable. "The tough part," my father joked, "is not to get electrocuted." The young lady set down her beer, securely lodged the wires, then plugged in the cord. The pickle turned an alien yellow, began to hum like a spaceship, and started cooking from the inside out. For 30 minutes the students played this game, laughing and rearranging the wires, adding more pickles, pouring beer over them, and somehow managing not to fry one another.

In the living room, an astronomy professor took his place in the Equation-Editing Shootout, but it was nearing Saturday morning by now, and few were watching. Wine and beer had numbed senses, and even the most respectable Ph.D.s had taken to sipping liquid nitrogen and then gargling it like mouthwash. They giggled and cheered as clouds of vapor blasted from their mouths. Bystanders covered their eyes, fearing that someone's tongue would crack and fall off, but there were no such accidents.

About The Author

John Mecklin

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