In the mid 20th century, something funny was going on at Niels Bohr’s Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen, Denmark. Despite the intensity of the work taking place there, in quantum, nuclear and particle physics, life certainly wasn’t a bore. Wit offered a way to grapple with the weirdness of quantum mechanics while letting off steam.
Ample opportunities for humor enabled researchers to take a break, including staged plays at annual conferences. The most famous of these was a parody of Faust, staged in 1932, with Mephistopheles, the devil, presented as acerbic physicist Wolfgang Pauli and Faust, the troubled soul, depicted as woeful physicist Paul Ehrenfest:
On October 7, 1935, Niels Bohr celebrated his 50th birthday. His friends, colleagues and former students didn’t want to trouble him with a collection of serious essays. Instead, they decided to pen a humor journal: The Journal of Jocular Physics. Sequel volumes would be created for his 60th birthday in 1945 and his 70th in 1955. (Bohr died in 1962.)
Today, issues of the Journal are hard to find. The Niels Bohr Archive has assembled the three volumes, along with the Institute’s version of Faust, and made a reprinted collection available to researchers. I’ve had the privilege of browsing through the very funny articles within, written by extraordinary physicists such as Hendrik Casimir (famous for the Casimir effect), Edward Teller and George Gamow.
The papers were written in a variety of languages. The first volume included satirical works in German, Japanese, Danish, French and English. By the third volume, after World War II, the international language of science had become English, and the articles reflected that new reality.
One of the journal’s satirical targets was the elusive, neutral particle now known as the electron neutrino, or neutrino for short. Pauli proposed that particle (which he originally called “neutron” until the massive neutral counterpart of the proton was discovered and so named) in 1930, to explain the source of missing energy and momentum in the radioactive process called beta decay.
Why would neutrinos be funny? First of all, Pauli was an opinionated character who often poked fun at the ideas of others. In the case of the neutrino, the tables were turned, as it was Pauli’s hypothesis to defend. Because neutrinos interact so rarely, mainly through the weak interaction, but not through electromagnetism or the strong force, they were extremely hard to detect until modern methods were developed. The first detection of neutrinos was not until 1956 in the Cowan-Reines experiment. Until then, they were viewed as “ghostly particles” and thus subject to jokes.
Hence, the first volume offers “La Plainte du Neutrino” (The neutrino’s complaint) — a parody of “Un secret” by French poet Felix Arvers — that compares the neutrino’s elusiveness to a secret unrequited love.
Another article in the first volume, written in German by Austrian theoretical physicist Victor Weisskopf, dealt with “The Complementary Philosophy of Jokes.”
Complementarity is Bohr’s suggestion that subatomic entities have a Yin-Yang juxtaposition of wavelike and particlelike properties. Depending on the type of experiment being performed, either wave or particle characteristics emerge.
Weisskopf suggested that jokes offer a distorted mirror to truth. By applying complementarity to humor, he noted, facts emerge as the diametric opposites of jokes. The modern-day equivalent of this would be the recently ended comic talk show, the Colbert Report, in which truth was often the opposite of everything host Stephen Colbert said in jest.
The second volume of the Journal of Jocular Physics was sparse, due to its publication at the end of World War II, when scientists had much more important concerns. Nevertheless, it contained a few funny articles. One of its amusing pieces, “My Initiation (paraphysical recollections)” by Léon Rosenfeld, addressed Bohr’s quiet, enigmatic speaking style. Bohr often mumbled and whispered, lending perhaps to his aura as a quantum mystic. Rosenfeld commented on how much he had to twist his head, just to hear Bohr, which made him quite dizzy. Therefore he felt like he was in a trance just listening to the great physicist, making the experience surreal. Rosenfeld concluded:
You can’t even catch a glimpse of complementarity if you don’t feel completely dizzy.
By the time of the third volume, many scientists, such as Bohr, had turned their attention to world peace and international scientific organizations, such as the newly founded CERN.
A savvy physicist noted the proliferation of research papers and slyly suggested that CERN researchers adopt a standard form for submissions:
Among that anonymous physicist’s humorous suggestions was a reference to Harvard physicist Julian Schwinger, noted for his prolific output of graduate students and papers. Given Schwinger’s ubiquitous presence, he wondered, why not just include “according to Schwinger” in the template for papers and save typing?
One of the funniest pieces in the third volume is a Bohr-themed satire of the classic children’s poem “The House that Jack Built.” The author of the parody was noted German-born British nuclear physicist Rudolf E. Peierls.
Here are some of the verses:
This is the atom that Bohr built.
This is the nucleus that sits in the atom that Bohr built.
This is the drop that looks like the nucleus that sits in the atom that Bohr built…
(the verses continue in that manner until the end of the poem, which reads)
This is the day we celebrate Bohr, who gave us the complementarity law, that gives correspondence (as Bohr said before) that holds in the shell, as well as the core, that possesses the compound levels galore, that make up the spectrum that’s due to the nodes that belong to the drop that looks like the nucleus that sits in the atom that Bohr built.
In conclusion, we see that Bohr didn’t just preside over a revolution in our view of the atom and its nucleus. He inspired much clever humor, written by quantum and nuclear physicists, offering not only relief from the stress of research, but also reflecting the absurdity of modern physics.
Many thanks to Finn Aaserud and Felicity Pors of the Niels Bohr Archive for introducing me to the Journal of Jocular Physics.