How Scientists Party

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

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.

Actually, surprisingly, no one has ever filed an official complaint over the Physics and Astronomy Party. Like an experienced rock band, my father and his colleagues know how to put on a show andkeep things in order.

But one incident from four years ago deserves mention. After a long and happy night, Dad and company goaded me into dumping a gallon of liquid nitrogen onto a hot barbecue. A violent mushroom cloud of burning ash enveloped me while 20 drunken guests went diving over chairs and tumbling into the doorway for shelter. The insulated vat dropped from my hands and shattered while I fell backward. I bumped my head on the wall, landed on shards of glass, and was temporarily blinded by dust. I might have had grounds for a lawsuit, but even in America a fellow can't sue his parents and still expect a room to stay in.


The equation.
The equation.
Gargling liquid nitrogen at the Physics and Astronomy 
Party.
James Sanders
Gargling liquid nitrogen at the Physics and Astronomy Party.

This year, it had been my levelheaded father's plan to ignite rocket fuel on the back porch as the grand finale, but only one of the required ingredients -- pressurized nitrous oxide purchased from a novelty shop in the Castro -- had been located. "We won't be going to the moon tonight," my father apologized to the half-dozen remaining students, "but this stuff will still burn." He lit up a blowtorch while a student opened an N2O cartridge and filled a large red balloon with the gas. One student forced the nitrous oxide through a length of PVC piping while another ignited the gas on its way out the opposite end. It was true, nobody went to the moon; but the gas flared brilliantly like a miniature space shuttle for several seconds.

"This guy's so rad," a student said quietly to me. "He's such a cool professor."

"I know," I told him. "He's my dad." (Alastair Bland)

Name That Name

I've got a very odd name, one that requires me to explain it a lot, to spell it aloud for someone almost daily, and to ponder what it means all the time. Unlike the boy named Sue of country music fame, I'm not alone. I mean, I am alone, in the sense that no one else I know of is named Hiya, but I grew up with other kids in my situation, kids named Rainbow, and Shandrika, and Coriander. Having long harbored a suspicion that we were, collectively, somehow better than the Johns and Jennies of the world, I was pretty stoked when Uma and Keanu and Moon Unit came along in the 1980s as fabulous affirmations. Now, of course, the name Harmony connotes über-hipness and creativity, but I remember when it meant that you were poor and dirty and might have head lice. I realized the Bay Area must be packed with oddly named people, now adults. I tracked some of them down, to see whether they'd wound up creative or infested.

"They probably didn't want to give me a 'jive' name," figures Orion Letizi, when I ask him what his parents were thinking. Most people, it turns out, either think his name is O'Ryan, or hear him saying, "Uh, Ryan." "Like maybe I've forgotten my own fucking name," he says, eyes wide in disbelief.

We talk about "trauma food" (carob-chip cookies for him, orange juice in Jell-O for me) and trot out long-repressed stories about geodesic domes and such. We mock freely until we practically choke on our organic cocktails. "They were probably trying to invest me with some kind of universe energy BS," Orion says, and we erupt into shrieking laughter again, momentarily unaware of the irony inherent in poking fun at "universe energy" while dining in a vegan restaurant. Despite his conflicted feelings, Letizi insists, "I'm not going to change my name. It's sort of like an attribute of yourself, like your eye color or your ethnicity."

Trismegista Taylor, not a vegan, is tolerant and sweet and looks for the good in people, even the ones who can't understand her name. When she meets someone for the first time, she says, "It's always the interesting people who are actually listening. I have a screening process with my name." And even though she has a quasi-normal nickname -- Tristy -- she often has to spell it out. And there's a twist: "People think it's Christy, and I say, 'No, with a "T."' And they go, 'Yeah, ChrisTEE.'"

Still, Taylor says she loves her name and recounts a pivotal moment in junior high to explain why. Her class had a substitute teacher, and rather than stumble over her name, the teacher recognized that it must have been borrowed from the first known alchemist, Hermes Trismegistus, and said so. "Every eye swiveled to look at me," Taylor remembers clearly, and at that moment, she says, she knew that she was different, and that different was not automatically bad. "That was the beginning, when I knew what alchemy was, and no other 14-year-olds did."

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