Friday, October 20, 2006

dinner-party conversations...

I was paging through a book on temperature by the physicist Gino Segre today and noticed the first comment under the "Praise for A Matter of Degrees" section:

"Segre's informal style reads like a dinner-party conversation with a physicist." - The Washington Post

It got me thinking - what exactly do people think a dinner-party conversation with a physicist is like? Was the Washington Post's comment a compliment or a dig at the jargon-laden words we throw into even informal conversations?

I was shoe shopping at the mall with some friends a few years ago, having fun flirting with the salesman. He asked me what I was studying and I dropped the p-word. Big mistake. The conversation died on the spot. "Oh" he said, and then avoided me the rest of the time that I was in the store. Apparently he wasn't too interested in having a shoe-store conversation with a physicist, much less a dinner conversation.

I and many of my physicist friends have had the experience of telling someone that we study physics and immediately being asked, "What do you think about string theory? I saw this nova special..." While I applaud the program and the attention it brought to physics, I had (and still have) little knowledge on the subject and even less insight on it to offer. But it seems that many people think string theory is a popular subject for physicists to discuss not just at dinner, but on plane rides, in stores, and on buses.

Physicists are known for having quirks - just check out the travel tips and stories in the recent issue of Symmetry magazine. But I feel the need to point out that my dinner conversations rarely revolve around physics. Of course I "only" have a masters in physics - maybe if I were a full member of the physics community I would spend my evening meal discussing string theory and superconductivity instead of Lost or the recent Flogging Molly concert.


  1. Hmmm. I only have a bachelors degree in physics, but I still chat about string theory at dinner and argue about who will get the next physics Nobel over beers at the corner pub.

    I would guess it's not really a matter of degrees (pardon the pun).

    Your shoe salesman experience could be a result of the fact that some men have a latent fear of intelligent women. Even though a physics degree is hardly a guarantee that someone is intelligent (I've met my share of numbskull physics PhDs, in fact), it certainly offers a strong suggestion that you are brighter than the average person on the street.

    Some guys can't handle the pressure of trying to keep up, and lack the confidence to be comfortable with a woman who can integrate circles around them.

  2. I've had similar experiences about the p-bomb on conversations. I just keep telling people I'm an butt-model for magazines and continue on with the conversation.