“Simple Physics”, by Sempé

Jean-Jacques Sempé does it again, with another great New Yorker cover. This time, his subject is- my people! (click for more detail):

sempe new yorker cover smallPretty interesting to see the choices of equations actually (mostly various quantum mechanics statements – Schrodinger’s equation, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the definition of the Hamiltonian in question (there seems to be an external electromagnetic field?), then there’s a reminder of what happens in beta-decay of the neutron…and there’s the inevitable Einstein’s E=mc2 thrown in at random… and more…).

It’s great to see all this up there… although it is worth noting that a more typical blackboard would have (instead of definitions/statements known very well to the physicist) much more of a working computation in progress, probably.

Of course, if the physicist knew that he or she was to be on a New Yorker cover, perhaps they would have cleaned things up a bit and stuck a few recognisable things on the board… So maybe this is realistic in that sense… I wonder: Does the artist know this material, or did he have a consultant, or an example or model to work from?

-cvj

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19 Responses to “Simple Physics”, by Sempé

  1. TBB says:

    All those complicated equations, two computers on his desk, papers and such strewn about, and he’s using a simple egg timer to boil his egg. Amusing. 🙂

  2. stefan says:

    Wonderful! I love Sempé – I didn’t know that his drawings appear on the cover of the New Yorker, and so far, I wasn’t aware of any cartoon by him featuring a physicist. Very nice!

    Stefan

  3. Blake Stacey says:

    Of course, if the physicist knew that he or she was to be on a New Yorker cover, perhaps they would have cleaned things up a bit and stuck a few recognisable things on the board… So maybe this is realistic in that sense…

    Freeman Dyson once came to speak at MIT, and before the colloquium, he had a pizza lunch with a bunch of us undergrads. At one point he mentioned doing exactly that before the funding people came through — everyone in the department put up elaborate Feynman diagrams so their chalkboards would look like Good Will Hunting

  4. Bee says:

    Ha. Today, the Canadian prime minister was at PI and gave a press conference (details see here). What you unfortunately can’t see on my photo is that the blackboard behind the speaker’s desk is covered with equations. We all agreed that they were made up and not left over from an actual seminar (the writing was much too clean). I think it was essentially the Standard Model Lagrangian. At some point the minister made the joke ‘How am I going to get a majority with all these equations behind me?’. Best, B.
    PS: Was sitting next to PI’s van driver Walter who told me on various other occasions he had been the one to write the equations to the blackboard.

  5. jeff says:

    Actually, TBB, I think that hourglass egg timer is dead on – physicists are generally very practical people when it comes to their personal lives. The timer is an ‘elegant’ solution for its task, ie it does exactly what it needs to do, in an obvious and simple manner, with no unnecessary complications or add-ons. In that way, it’s actually a lot like those equations – to anyone who knows how to read them, they’re amazingly concise and straightforward descriptions of fundamental and profound aspects of the physical world.

  6. Clifford says:

    Jeff:- Thanks. That’s extremely well put, and I very much agree.

    -cvj

  7. Pioneer1 says:

    Great cover! I love Sempe. He was my inspiration when I was trying to learn how to draw. (And also Herge) I had all his books. My drawings have been published in the New Yorker last ten years but no covers (sigh!). I didn’t know they still published Sempe. You may want to look at Steinberg also for some thought proviking covers.

    For the blackboard, nothing beats a real slate chalkboard. I used to have one which I bought from ebay. It was fun. Thanks for the post.

  8. TBB says:

    Jeff, I don’t know if physicists are very practical people or not (I don’t know any offline!), but I’ll take your word on that. I agree in that I saw it as the humble beginings of physics, i.e., your early sand and water clocks still work reasonably well* and provide a practical, if not “elegant,” solution. What you have a picture of there is a sort of span of the history of physics, whether that was the intention or not; simple sand timer, boiling, temperature…that would be simpler physics, right? I can hear a particular professor saying, “The joys of classical mechanics!” But I recall in a physics book I have with regards to Einstein, chapters titled “Dreams of Simplicity,” “The Search For Simplicity,” and so on…the search for a simplified theory. Most of those equations are dense despite what they describe; the guy has a very messy area while he’s working on what you describe as “concise and straightforward descriptions of fundamental and profound aspects of the physical world.” Then there’s the very orderly kitchen side, the table neatly arranged, sand marking time. I guess one will make of it what they will.

    I find it interesting, though, that physicists and non-physicists will look at a picture and zoom in on different things, or so I thought when I posted my comment late at night. Why didn’t Clifford mention the egg timer?? He zoomed right in on the blackboard and made that his focus. That’s a working physicist! I’m not criticizing, just noting an observation…perhaps it’s a reference frame thing. 😉

    Ironically, Clifford, I’ve wanted to ask you for help on an explanation of an equation that I couldn’t find an answer to, or least one I understood, but have been too embarrassed to ask. I guess I’ll go poach an egg now… :-/

    *I say reasonably, because if you recall using those timers in board games, they would eventually get stuck and someone would get an extra minute or two before anyone noticed. Then you would have to constantly pat the thing.

  9. Clifford says:

    Actually, I saw the cooking and egg timer first. Zoomed in on the rest later. However, since I’m very interested in the images of scientists in the mainstream, I chose to focus my remarks on the issue of what choices were made with regard to the science depicted, and how real or unreal it was… The cooking part was nice, but unremarkable to me, in the image since… scientists take time out to cook, just like anyone else.

    Cheers!

    -cvj

  10. David B. says:

    Hi Clifford:

    Actually my blackboard would look just like the one in the picture after I was done explaining electrons in a constant magnetic field to a student who did not get it in class, starting from the classsical Hamiltonian and quantizing. There could also be some straggler
    Feynman diagram that I didn’t erase.

    About the kitchen in the office: I try to avod that, but I know various people who would be very happy with such a setup. Also, my office desk looks just as messy, but I try to keep a clean kitchen.

    I think the cartoon is very realistic overall. Much more than just a stereotype. It is exactly because of the mundane aspects of the action.

  11. TBB says:

    CJ: The cooking part was nice, but unremarkable to me, in the image since…scientists take time out to cook, just like anyone else.

    DB: About the kitchen in the office: I try to avod that, but I know various people who would be very happy with such a setup. Also, my office desk looks just as messy, but I try to keep a clean kitchen.

    Oh, I got such a chuckle out of those comments. Thanks! ((-:

  12. Jude says:

    When I saw the New Yorker cover, I told my son, “Clifford will be blogging about this.”

  13. Jess says:

    I’m guessing if the physicist had known he was going to be on the cover of the New Yorker he wouldn’t have started boiling an egg in the middle of the photo-shoot.

  14. Clifford says:

    Ha Ha!

    Interesting point… but you’d be surprised what those fancy magazine-cover people want their subjects to do for the “human interest” angle….

    -cvj

  15. TBB says:

    I’m surprised that in this “personal” view of the cover that there’s been no comment on the physicist himself. Isn’t that sort of a stereotypical depiction? The somewhat frumpy, balding, bearded physicist with glasses? In group pictures of Fermilab, CERN, blogging physicists, MIT videos, etc., I don’t see that as a typical-looking physicist. Though John Ellis at CERN is kind of woolly-looking (though hardly bald.) Scroll down and zoom in on his picture and see his very scary workspace. Eek! Alan Guth has tornadic organization behind him, too. Is that typical of physicists’ offices, or is it simply that they are given too small of an office space to work in? I recall Sean Carroll’s picture when he got the Feynman desk and thinking, ‘Boy, his office looks tidy!’ Or maybe some are neat at work, but not at home…

    Is there any noticeable difference between male and female physicists’ offices and their organization? And since Sempe titled his cover “Simple Physics” it’s interesting that he chose to draw a frumpy male physicist since a woman figure would have achieved the same impression (the irony, at least). He is 75 and The New Yorker caters to an older audience, but that doesn’t seem to be a main concern of Sempe’s cartoon art anyway.

    Not meaning to sound overly feminist or something, I enjoy Sidney Harris’s cartoons too, but I wonder when the use of stereotype as “economy of language” will change even with cartoons, or more importantly, the good and the bad of stereotype. (There’s a woman in that one regarding particles, though I’m not sure who is talking.) I’m not saying artists/cartoonists should avoid stereotypes or are obligated to do anything in particular, but that these societal reflections die hard and I’m pleased as punch when a good cartoonist shakes things up a little bit. Boondocks might be a good example of that, as well as Doonesbury and PhD Comics.

    Sorry for the ramble – that’s just your blog-effect, Clifford. 😉

    Off-topic: Have you ever made strawberry-rhubarb pie? Do you even like it? Affordable strawberries are already gone now in these here parts.

  16. mollishka says:

    Freeman Dyson once came to speak at MIT, and before the colloquium, he had a pizza lunch with a bunch of us undergrads. At one point he mentioned doing exactly that before the funding people came through — everyone in the department put up elaborate Feynman diagrams so their chalkboards would look like Good Will Hunting…

    Ha! I was going to relate the same anecdote.

    I also dislike the depiction of what a physicsist looks like… that’s not what real physicsts look like! Definitely not so dumpy-looking.

  17. Pyracantha says:

    There may be even more story to this appealing image. Joe Physicist is boiling an egg and there is orange juice on the table, as well as what looks like toast and butter. That’s breakfast food. Given the frumpy look and the tired body language, I would guess that Mr. Physicist has been up all night working on those equations (perhaps in vain) and is now wearily making breakfast for himself.

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