Penguin Opportunity?

So I don’t know whether you’ve noticed or not, but there’s been an awful lot of penguin movies (or movies with a big penguin component) recently. There’s yet another one to come out soon about surfing penguins. I’m slightly annoyed by it already, and I can’t really tell you why. It could turn out to be good, I suppose…

So I got to thinking that this could be theoretical physics’ big break! We can pitch our own penguin movie, since we have up our collective sleeve…

The penguin diagram!

penguin diagram

This is a type of “Feynman diagram” describing how various particles interact with each other in a specific process. (More on Feynman diagrams here, for example.) What does it have to do with Penguins? Well, this picture I got from Wikipedia might help:

penguin diagram

melissa franklinjohn ellisApparently, John Ellis is responsible for their appearance in the literature, pushed along by Melissa Franklin. The usual suspects were involved too (drinks, a pub, darts, etc…) From the Wikipedia article here is the story, in (we’re told) John’s words:

Mary K. [Gaillard], Dimitri [Nanopoulos] and I first got interested in what are now called penguin diagrams while we were studying CP violation in the Standard Model in 1976… The penguin name came in 1977, as follows.

In the spring of 1977, Mike Chanowitz, Mary K and I wrote a paper on GUTs predicting the b quark mass before it was found. When it was found a few weeks later, Mary K, Dimitri, Serge Rudaz and I immediately started working on its phenomenology. That summer, there was a student at CERN, Melissa Franklin who is now an experimentalist at Harvard. One evening, she, I and Serge went to a pub, and she and I started a game of darts. We made a bet that if I lost I had to put the word penguin into my next paper. She actually left the darts game before the end, and was replaced by Serge, who beat me. Nevertheless, I felt obligated to carry out the conditions of the bet.

For some time, it was not clear to me how to get the word into this b quark paper that we were writing at the time. Then, one evening, after working at CERN, I stopped on my way back to my apartment to visit some friends living in Meyrin where I smoked some illegal substance. Later, when I got back to my apartment and continued working on our paper, I had a sudden flash that the famous diagrams look like penguins. So we put the name into our paper, and the rest, as they say, is history.

So when I started this post it was going to be about how we might take advantage of the Hollywood craze for all things penguin and pitch a Penguin movie about physics….er…. somehow. Ideas welcome, since I seem to be drawing a blank on how we might use Penguin diagrams…. but evidently it need not be too plausible, or even vaguely, given what has gone up on the silver screen the last few years (from March of the Penguins, through Madagascar, to Happy Feet, and beyond).

Now, after reproducing the John Ellis story up above, I find myself thinking about some other things that some of you might have stories about.

  • There are other famous Feynman diagram shapes with names…. s=do you have a favourite? Know the history behind it?
  • Of course, the Biologists have outdone us on the naming business by a long way. If you don’t know about some of their wonderful names for genes of various sorts, it’s worth doing a bit of digging around. Some of them are marvellous… funny, clever, silly, etc. See the case of Sonic Hedgehog, one of my favourite examples. Which reminds me. I read on a blog somewhere that there’s been a bit of a reaction against some of the names, and there’s a move to change some of them. (This is partly because sometimes your silly-named gene ends up controlling some highly relevant human disorder, and it does not do to be telling patients or their families about something serious while using a silly name some postdoc cooked up over a pint late one evening…. pity though…. See here, for example.)
  • There seems to be quite a few “physicist-A bets physicist-B” stories in the folklore of our field. It usually is a dare to put something into a paper, or some matter of principle (such as the Kip Thorne, Stephen Hawking and John Preskill bet over black holes and the information paradox), or some yes/no issue such as whether Cygnus X-1 was a black hole or not (Thorne and Hawking again). Can you think of any others? Made any bets/dares of your own?
  • Is this betting/daring business just a physicist thing, or is it also happening in other fields? How about Biology? So many juicy things to bet about there…


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