Crazy Al

So I was chatting with a friend of mine the other day about science and scientists, and in particular what on earth we theoretical physicists actually do.

She (mostly jokingly I think) said we’re really all a bit weird, just sitting around thinking about quantum physics all day. einstein_imagesI tried to begin to explain that we don’t sit around thinking about quantum mechanics all day any more than a tailor sits around all day thinking about needles. (Or how many angels or demons can fly through the eyes of said needles at the same time.) No, we’re mostly getting on with using the needles in the making of new suits and so forth. (To continue the allegory.)

But I did not get to that analogy, because another thing came up. She went on to say “…like Einstein, with crazy hair…”, to invoke her primary example of the crazy quantum scientist. Now, given that she was talking to me (er… no crazy hair, in case you are wondering), she was clearly joking, but in my view, at the core of all that is a serious image problem that science has to deal with – bizarre clichรฉs about who we are and what we look like. So I thought I’d point something out.

The most famous image of the crazy/eccentric scientist is largely based on a lie (or more generously, a misconception), in the following sense. I typed “Einstein” into Google, clicked on images and the very first page (click for larger view) was of 20 famous images of the man, either as crazy-haired eccentric, or wizened old Yoda-like icon, or whatever. Except the very last one on the page. There he is as a normal-looking young man, an image that is so much less common. But here’s the thing. When he was doing the majority of the work he was famous for (quantum mechanics, Special Relativity, etc), that is closer to what he looked like. He was born in 1879 and his “miracle year” (when four stunning papers he is famous for were published) was 1905. So he was 26, and he’d been doing the work for years leading up to that. He was not some crazy old guy sitting around thinking about quantum physics, the image that gets put out there in the Einstein (and to some extent, scientist) mythology. I explained all this and showed the Google page (snap above).

She looked at it for a moment. Sharp intake of breath on realization.

Then, “Oh! He was a crazy young guy!”…



(*I then laughed slightly hysterically for about a full minute…)

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19 Responses to Crazy Al

  1. Moh says:

    Hmmmmm…Our department does not look tooo crazy? Does it?

  2. Clifford says:

    Hey! Shouldn’t we update that ancient 5+ year old photo to include you, Elena, Grace, and Paolo? Forgot it existed…!!


  3. Moh says:

    I think that’s definitely a good idea ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. kim says:

    I want to consider mathematicians instead of physicists. There are probably a good handful of examples of them who were eccentrics and this is characterised by extreme or odd behavior/habits, obsessions, no social skills, etc who do stand out from most of the population. Is this some coincidence or not?

    Solving problems or fabricating theories does take a single minded obsessive solitary mindset which only strengthens the notion that they are eccentrics. So the question is which side of the argument is true?

  5. Clifford says:


    There are single minded obsessive people in several fields: Science, art, commerce, music, politics, law, bus-driving, etc. There are also people who are outstanding in these fields who do not stand out as particularly weird. So why do we allow one stereotype to serve as the model in physics and mathemtics?


  6. kim says:


    I think its ignorance and misconceptions. But the reason for this is that its not possible for a person to understand the precise nature of math without actually studying it himself and therein lies the ignorance.

    well for example once I was speaking to a friend about our future careers, and I mentioned mathematician. She replied ‘what is a mathematician?’ Another friend simply assumed that math was good for doing sums when one goes grocery shopping. And so there is a misconception about what a mathematician is and does.

    In the case of math or string theory, what other stereotypes are there that characterises the work they do?

  7. Guru says:

    Dear Clifford,

    On a slightly different note, you might like this!


  8. Michelle says:

    I have also had this conversation… trying to explain that I am not “just sitting around and thinking”, but purposefully thinking…

  9. Clifford says:

    …with your crazy hair…



  10. GarboTalks says:

    Didn’t Al ride his bicycle everywhere? He looks like he just got off his bike and didn’t have a comb.

  11. Pingback: Gunslinging Bohr at Asymptotia

  12. SteveM says:

    What really gets my teeth grinding is when the older Einstein is sometimes depicted wearing a white lab coat! Unfortunately, physics and math has always had something of an image problem. In the UK in the 70s and 80s we had the Open University, which featured lectures on basic physics, math, calculas etc. screened in the morning hours or after midnight. (You will probably remember this Clifford.) A wonderful idea but the lecturerers/presenters had to be some of the worst-dressed people in history, even by 1970s/80s standards: huge sideburns, thick glasses, long hair, kipper ties, coloured shirts, flared trousers. I wonder how many kids of that time were actually turned off science/math because of that since none of them would have ever said:”Wow–I want to be just like those guys!”. In fact, this parody of the Open University by Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry is pretty much like the real thing;)

  13. Clifford says:

    Ah… late night Open University programmes (and early Sunday mornings)… Good times. Some of my best television years. I miss them, warts and all ๐Ÿ˜€


  14. kim says:

    Do you feel that the image of open university has changed now steve?

    Clifford one thing I have never understood is the problem of uniting gravity with QFT. They say that there is some inconsistency. In a nutshell how do you explain this problem? Is it purely mathematical?


  15. Clifford says:


    Non-renormalizability is the primary technical issue that arises when you try to formulate it as an ordinary QFT. I do not know what at level you are wishing to get an answer. However, there are many readily available sources to read about this issue. Did you try looking for some on the web for example?



  16. kim says:


    Yes I have read many (popular) books about it and so I know about this issue but I don’t really know what they mean when they say ‘unite all 4 forces of nature.’ I’m just looking for a general answer to this question.


  17. Clifford says:


    I’m sorry, but I’m confused. Sometimes you ask questions at one level and sometimes another, so please forgive me not knowing how to answer your many questions. Last week we discussed details of electroweak symmetry breaking at your request, which was all about uniting the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces. Now you say you don’t know what uniting forces means. I am confused.


  18. kim says:

    Hi Clifford,

    I only know the basics from reading science books so this is where it can get confusing as I said earlier about how this popularisation can cause confusion.

    So we often hear about how at the big bang all 4 forces were united and then as the universe cooled the 4 forces I suppose ‘separated’. We hear about how they are trying to unite all 4 forces. Ok so I dont understand the notion of ‘uniting.’

  19. Clifford says:


    I am confused because in an earlier stream of questions you were asking me about much more advanced things than this that would suggest that unification was familiar to you. So I find it hard to know how best to answer your questions. And I am reluctant, since it also suggests that you’re not really making any effort to understand… just following up with another random question almost immediately. I can’t play this game.

    With respect, I think part of the danger is often not with popularization as with people not having the patience (or whatever) to dig a little and read the many coherent accounts of this that are out there. Popularization requires both parties to move toward each other. The explainer and the explainee. I think that in order to understand what’s going on, you need to do more than just ask me streams of random questions. The knowledge will not enter your head and stay there without real effort on your part.

    Have you tried googling for some of these things you’ve been asking before asking me? There are many excellent sites out there with ready answers to many of those things. There’s a lot of junk too, but you can often figure out what’s going on by looking at multiple sources. Please try it.

    I appreciate that you are interested and that you want to know more, but as we’ve discussed before you constantly pepper lots of fragmented questions about lots of disconnected things all over this blog, and expect me to just answer them, while there is little evidence of you having tried to learn a little about some of it on your own. I repeat: – I do like conversation and people asking questions, but I am neither google nor wikipedia. My advice is to get hold of one of the very very many good books on the subject that has a bit more detail (take “Inward Bound” by Pais, since you said you had some mathematical background so you won’t be afraid of some equations, although they can be ignored and still get a lot out of the book) and read it. Properly. Trying to get a coherent picture of what is going on by asking me streams of disconnected questions every day is not going to teach you anything if you don’t take the time and effort to learn it from such a coherent source. All you will serve to do is frustrate me, yourself, and alienate streams of readers who can’t work out what is going on in this long, fragmented “conversation” that has gone on for several comment threads. I love answering questions, and trying to point people to interesting sources, etc., trusting that they will go look at those sources, and take the time to understand, and maybe do a bit of reserch on the web themselves, etc. That does not seem to be what is going on here, so I am not going to continue in this mode because it is not working for any of us.