Of God and cheeky geeks

Science does provide light moments to its practitioners

Science is serious business! To the outsider, scientists are a body of people who are dedicated to their research and know how to go about it.

While this picture stands correct by and large, science does provide light moments to its practitioners. So there grow jokes, spoofs, apocryphal stories through which the scientists unburden themselves. Indeed, these may be seen as means of letting off any growing tension. Here are some of them.

A scientist died and went to heaven. Arriving there he immediately asked for the email facility so that he could stay in touch with his terrestrial friends.

This was promptly provided and the scientist began to exchange information and gossip as he used to when he was alive.

After a week (as measured on Earth) he contacted his close friend on Earth and the following conversation ensued on email.

The person in heaven asked: “I have two news items one good, the other bad. Which shall I tell first?” His friend on Earth replied: “I had lot of bad news recently: my promotion has been delayed; I did not get invitation to speak on my work at the forthcoming conference; and more so, the referee has rejected my paper.

So let us hear the good news first.” The scientist from heaven replied: “Well, I really enjoy the colloquia here, which are attended by a galaxy of scientists.

Can you imagine my talk was attended by Newton, Gauss, Einstein, Dirac and so many other big names? Back on Earth this could never have happened.”

Having agreed that this was good news for any scientist, the terrestrial scientist asked for the bad news.

“Well, I do not know how to break it to you… but your colloquium has been announced for next week.” Replied his friend from heaven.

Another “heavenly” story refers to Wolfgang Pauli, a distinguished scientist of the 20th century.

Himself a great achiever with seminal contributions to quantum physics, Pauli was known for his critical comments. When he went to heaven, God said to him: “Professor Pauli, you used to criticise theories which tried to explain why the proton is so much more massive than the electron.

Well, here is the answer”. He handed over some sheets of paper to Pauli. Pauli looked at page 1 then at page 4 and then back at page 1. Shaking his head he handed them back to God, saying, “Wrong again”.

Once Pauli was attending a seminar by a young scientist who was describing his recently published work.

The speaker had to face a barrage of critical remarks from Pauli until he couldn’t take it anymore and said: “Professor Pauli, I am sorry, but I cannot think as fast as you can.” Pauli replied: “I do not mind your slow thinking but I do object to your publishing faster than you can think!”

At the opposite extreme was Paul Dirac who rarely spoke. His colleagues said that Dirac spoke one sentence in six months.

Though an exaggeration, it was indicative of Dirac’s quiet demeanour. Once Dirac was invited to be a guest in an American household where the lady of the house read up and polished her French.

For with a French sounding name “Dirac” she thought that her guest would not understand English. So all through Dirac’s stay, she laboriously spoke French.

Dirac was, of course, bilingual, having a French mother and English father and he carried on in French.

On the last day of his stay his hostess discovered that he spoke English as well. So she felt bad that she could have talked more with her distinguished guest had she known this fact. “Why didn’t you tell me that you speak English as well?” she asked half complaining. “Because you did not ask me!” replied Dirac.

The same Dirac was sitting next to an undergraduate freshman at the opening dinner at which the college welcomed its new students.

As Dirac was silent, the student broke the ice and asked: “Sir, what is your subject?” “Mathematics,” replied Dirac who was the Lukasian Professor at Cambridge University.

“I too like maths,” said the undergraduate, now somewhat more comfortable that his neighbour shared his liking. He added: “I even got a prize for my work”. “So did I,” replied Dirac without revealing that the prize was a Nobel Prize.

About absent mindedness of scientists, here is one about J.J. Thomson who was at Trinity College, Cambridge. One morning his wife woke up to find that Professor Thomson had already left the house which did not surprise her because she was aware that her husband had an early appointment at the college.

What disturbed her, though, was the pair of trousers he used to wear lying on the chair. Had he forgotten to wear them? She was not surprised and rang up the porter’s lodge of Trinity to stop Professor Thomson from entering the college without his trousers.

However, all was well! The previous afternoon Thomson had attended a garage sale where the householder organising it had old items at very cheap prices. J.J. had picked up second-hand trousers which he had worn the following morning.

Sir Harold Jeffreys, the famous geophysicist and statistician, was invited to be consultant to an oil company. He attended their meeting but was quiet most of the time.

To draw him into conversation, the chairman asked: “What do you think, Sir Harold?” At which stage he replied: “I think it is time for coffee”.

After coffee break the discussion resumed and towards the end the chairman again asked Sir Harold’s views. Predictably he said: “I think it is time for lunch.”

The exercise was repeated at tea break also and finally when the meeting was getting over the chairman asked the expert for his advice. Sir Harold got up saying, “I am glad it is your problem, not mine!”

Two scientists were conversing and one of them confessed: “With increasing age I am becoming less and less efficient.”

The other, who thought highly of himself, countered: “Indeed? My experience is different. I am becoming more and more efficient as I grow old.”

Whereupon the first one said: “Then one of these days in the future, our efficiencies will become equal”. I heard this story is about David Hilbert and Walther Nernst respectively.

The writer, a renowned astrophysicist, is professor emeritus at Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune University Campus

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