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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10 Responses to Penguin Opportunity?

  1. Navneeth says:

    Say what?

  2. Navneeth says:

    Hmm…that does not mean anything without the picture I added, which, btw, the preview feature promised me would appear in the final comment. 🙁

  3. Clifford says:

    sorry… commenters are not allowed to post pictures.. for obvious reasons. email it to me and I can post it in a comment just below.



  4. Navneeth says:

    Never mind…I think you can delete the comments. In retrospect, the “joke” seems lame. I’ll continue to try and come up with a good storyline for the movie. 😀

  5. Samantha says:

    Although people take bets all time in biology labs, I am fruitlessly racking my brain to think of a famous bet between biologists. I think the sort of experiments that we do (mouse genetics) take so long that you have forgotten the bet by the time the experiment is actually done.

    I somehow feel that Sydney Brenner would be a famous better, but I can’t find any folklore on the web. [He took 7 years (cough) to do his Nobel prize winning research on the develop ment of C.elegans as a genetic system back in the late 60s/early 70s. It was a different funding climate then.]

  6. Athena says:

    I was recently talking about the black hole and information paradox wager with a physicist friend of mine; I had just come across it in a book. Although the scientific process behind it is fascinating, what I really enjoyed was the sense of humor behind the prize Hawking gave to Preskill. Here’s a quote I found on the web:

    “I’m now ready to concede the bet,” Prof Hawking said yesterday. At stake was an encyclopedia – “from which information can be recovered at ease” – of the winner’s choice. “John is all American so naturally he wants an encyclopedia of baseball. I had great difficulty finding one over here, so I offered him an encyclopedia of cricket as an alternative,” Prof Hawking said. “But John wouldn’t be persuaded of the superiority of cricket.”

  7. Plato says:

    Symmetry Magazine had a nice article about this. I write about it from a “heart song” perspective.:)

  8. Hi Clifford,

    well, I have a bet of a grand out with Jacques Distler and Gordon Watts, on the absence of any new physics at the LHC within 2 years of delivering 10/fb to the experiments. You can read the details in my blog (search for “this $1000 says there is no new physics at the tev scale” or something like that in my site, Sep 2006).

    The rationale of the bet is that I would really love to lose it! And if I win, well, I will find some way to use an extra grand.


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