Theoretical Physicists get Physical

04Aug06

And here’s something from the “so-dorky-it’s-cute” department: theoretical physicists playing sports! This isn’t as surprising as one might think; spending the entire day sipping espresso and drawing Feynman diagrams (and that’s a good day…) gets one pretty antsy to do something outside.

Clifford Johnson (a former University of Durham professor who is now at USC) has posted a recap of the string theory vs. phenomenology basketball game at the Aspen Center for Physics. (For those who don’t know what those words mean, Clifford also discussed the difference between a phenomenology and formal theory, and I did my best in a separate post.) It sounds like the game was pretty typical of a theoretical physics sporting event–lots of physics puns and a couple of people wearing jeans. As an added bonus, he mentions Stanford string theorists Eva Silverstein and Shamit Kachru as string theory basketball stars.


Image borrowed from Asymptotia.

Speaking of Stanford theorists in sports, in my last months as an undergraduate, I went out to dinner with Chris (who is also coming to UCB to do string theory) and our advisor, Stephen Shenker, who told us that his physical outlet during his graduate years in Cornell was playing touch football. Once referred to as “not only respected, but feared” among string theorists by the New York Times, Chris and I imagined him to be quite the player. (Undergraduates openly wondered who would win in a brawl between Shenker and theoretical astrophysicist Roger Romani, an avid swimmer. The commmonly cited argument that the latter was super-toned, but the former probably had lasers he could shoot out of his eyes.)

Come to think of it, all of the Stanford theory professors seem to have enjoyed physical activities. Kachru and Silverstein are also avid runners and Andrei Linde and Renata Kallosh bike home together (both pairs are married). Scott Thomas, now at Rutgers, enjoys mountain biking. Lenny Susskind has posted photos of himself outside his office showing him huffing and puffing on an outdoor track, and Savas Dimopoulos is an avid cyclist–except when it rained, in which case Jay Wacker, his former post-doc, would drive him home. Further, every year, the department hosts the Bill Fairbank Memorial Run/Walk/Bike (in memory of Prof. Bill Fairbank) where you’ll find a range of professors, grad students, and admins competing not to finish first, but to finish with the smalled percentage difference from their predicted time.

The kicker, I suppose, is SLAC’s annual Theory vs. Experiment softball game, pitting Sid Drell’s theory team against Burton Richter’s experiment team. The cumulative record is strongly in favor of the experimentalists, though there have been some very valiant theory teams.


The 1997 SLAC Theory Softball Team

A little over a year ago I organized a similar ultimate frisbee game for the undergraduates doing research over the summer. This time the theorists routed the experimentalists 10-2. (To be fair the theorists did have a couple of former ultimate frisbee team members.)


July 3, 2005 (L to R: Richard Foster, Stedman Wilson, Flip Tanedo, Ravi Gupta, Matt Steinecker).

These days, I’ve been playing some basketball of my own, practicing with Berkeley’s very own physics grad student intramural team, Net Force. It took me a few seconds to understand the name, but I’m not usually very good with those kinds of jokes. Over the past few weeks the Wednesday night games at a local elementary school have become the highlight of my week, punctuated by regular 5 second time-outs when someone’s glasses fall.

Anyway, if nothing else I hope I’ve shown that there’s slightly more to a theorist’s life than sitting in an office.



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