Monday, November 17, 2014

RHIC and a shower: how stand-up comedian Frank Wilczek suffered for science

I think that this 19-minute video at the World Science Festival (the "Moth" series) shows that Frank Wilczek could make the living as a stand-up comedian. At least it seems to me that he is a more natural entertainer than the comedian who introduced him.

The video was posted 3 weeks ago but it was recorded in 2010, I think.

He tells us two stories, a longer one and a shorter one, how he has suffered for science.

RHIC, black holes

First, sometime around 2000, Walter Wagner – the same Hawaiian high school teacher who would sue the LHC later – would question the RHIC experiment in Brookhaven. It was supposed to create a black hole. Frank Wilczek wanted a Nobel prize for some related results so he wanted to be the go-to guy who answers all questions.

So when the P.R. department of the Brookhaven Labs got the complaint, he was asked to write the reply – see e.g. this preprint. The black hole would be too small, too quickly evaporating, and the Earth has survived billions of years of similar collisions. We learned that the "strangelet scenario" was added by Wilczek himself because he wanted to make the threat more spicy and more likely (but still easy enough for him to disprove it). With the strangelet twist, it became a text he was proud about.

His reply was sent to Scientific American where the original worries by Wagner were published. But of course, while Scientific American has lots of space for the likes of Walter Wagner (not to mention John Horgan), they didn't have enough room for soon-to-be Nobel prize winners such as Wilczek so they insisted the text had to be shortened. They shortened it themselves and Frank Wilczek had okayed that, by saying "very well, Gentlemen, it's your choice" (which was Wilczek's diplomatic code for "scr*w you, aßholes, I wouldn't be able to stop you, anyway").

Needless to say, weeks later when he was already on some truly secluded vacation in New Hampshire, the British and other newspapers would write big stories that the RHIC was the "final experiment" that was probably going to destroy the world (with some apocalyptic photographs) and Wilczek was quoted as the authority.

So his brother arrived with a motorbike and Wilczek had to go to a payphone that was 5 miles away and share it with an impatient truck driver, and to call about 20 journalists all over the world to clean the mess, as the director of RHIC kindly but resolutely ordered him. Wilczek's secretary was more excited than ever before and ever since, too. Many of the journalists didn't really speak English well enough so Wilczek was cleverly using hand gestures to improve the phone conversation ;-).

Preparing the ceremony in Scandinavia

The second time he had to suffer for science was in 2004 when the Nobel prize winners were being selected again. Preemptively, Frank Wilczek would take a shower so that he's ready; David Gross has been doing similar preparations each October during several decades, too. :-) He got the call and expected just "you won the prize, congratulations, good-bye". Instead, he had to talk to various officials etc. for 20 minutes – standing naked, dripping, and wet in the shower the whole time.

Listen to that monologue, I think it's pretty funny! Some physicists simply have the natural talent. And I don't have a clue why it is exactly the image of Krusty from the Simpsons that has appeared in this blog post about Frank Wilczek! ;-)


  1. The comedian may not be up to much but that quote of Frank Wilczek's he read out is a gem.

    "If you take away everything that's left then what's left is right."

    Frank Wilczek was being very kind though. For sure the left are right about nothing but it's far worse than that — they couldn't be more wrong, ABOUT EVERYTHING!

  2. You don't say the December Prize any more that you say the Scottish play or pronounce

  3. איר זענען ניט דערלויבט צו זאָגן אַז! בלאַספעמינג מאַמזער! (:

  4. "...Blaspheming...?" We are mandated to write it. He who pronounces it correctly terminates creation. Blade rack, phoneme database, speakers, and go for it. Perhaps the God who is God must be pronounced re French flatulist Joseph Pujol,

    MEPS 449 55 (2012), doi:10.3354/meps09549; it could happen!

  5. Thank you kindly, Uncle Al, but find some other mug to pull that plug for you.

    Despite ardent inattention at Sunday School, I'm superstitious too, y'know! :)