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Thread: The theory of practical joking - its relevance to physics

  1. #1 The theory of practical joking - its relevance to physics 
    precious sir ir r aj's Avatar
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    The theory of practical joking - its relevance to physics
    R V - J O N E S
    At first sight there may seem little relation between physics andpractical joking. Indeed, I might never have observed their connection
    but for an incidental study of the life of James Clerk
    Maxwell. Two things, among many others, struck me. The first
    was the growth of his sense of fun from the primitive joke of the
    boy of six tripping up the maid with the tea tray to the refined,
    almost theoretical, jpkes of his later life. The second was his
    mastery of analogy in physical thinking: already, at the age of
    twenty-four he had written a part playful, part serious essay on
    the theory of analogy which showed two of the main features of
    his mind. On the lighter side, he pointed out the relation between
    an analogy and a pun: in the former one truth lies under two
    expressions, and in the latter two truths lie under one expression.
    Hence from the theory of analogy one can by reciprocation deduce
    the theory of puns. To the more serious side of Maxwell’s
    understanding of analogy I shall return later, but all this set me
    thinking about the possible connection between the theory of
    practical joking and physics. One factor which encouraged me
    was the high incidence of mischievous humour among physicists.
    Even Newton, it is recorded, caused trouble in his Lincolnshire
    village as a boy by flying at night a kite carrying a small lantern;
    and in this century the spritely skill of the late Professor R W
    Wood and Professor G Gamow is already legendary. While I hope
    to illustrate this paper with examples, I propose first to analyse
    (if this is not altogether too brutal a process) the essentials of a
    joke.
    I N C O N G R U I T I E S
    The crux of the simplest form of joke seems to be the production
    of an incongruity in the normal order of events. We hear the story,
    for example, of Maxwell showing Kelvin some optical experiment,
    and inviting Kelvin to look through the eyepiece. Kelvin was surprised
    to find that, while the phenomenon described by Maxwell
    was undoubtedly there, so was a little human figure, the incongruity,
    dancing about. Kelvin could not help asking ‘Maxwellbut
    what is the little man there for ?’ ‘Have another look, Thomson,’
    said Maxwell, ‘and you should see.’ Kelvin had another look,
    but was no wiser. ‘Tell me, Maxwell,’ he said impatiently, ‘What
    is he there for ?’ . . . ‘Just for fun, Thomson,’ replied Maxwell.
    When we consider a simple incongruity of this type, we can see
    why this form of humour is sometimes described as ‘nonsense’;
    for ‘sense’ implies the normal order of things, and in this order an
    incongruity makes ‘nonsense.’ A simple incongruity in the literature
    of physics is R W Wood’s recording of the fact that he
    cleaned out an optical instrument by pushing his cat through it.
    Even a change of dimension is sufficient to cause an incongruity.
    Lord Cherwell has a story of a scientist at Farnborough in World
    War I, who was so dismayed by the delays in ordering commercial
    equipment that when he wanted a dark-room lamp he made a
    pencil sketch of one, to be made up by the workshop. It availed
    him little, however, because a proper engineer’s drawing had by
    regulation to be made in triplicate before the workshop would
    start. Weeks elapsed, and finally after a knock on his door two
    workmen wheeled in the largest dark-room lamp ever constructed.
    In making the workshop drawing the draughtsman had left out
    one dash, with the result that intended inches became actual feet.
    One of the classic incongruities of this type is that due to Benjamin
    Franklin in a letter to the Editor of a London newspaper in
    1765, chaffing the English on their ignorance of America: ‘The
    grand leap of the Whale up the Falls of Niagara is esteemed, by
    all who have seen it, as one of the finest spectacles in Nature!’
    A variation on the simple incongruity in humour is to produce a
    congruity where incongruity is normally expected. One does not
    expect, for example, any congruity about the names of joint
    authors of scientific papers. It was therefore rather a surprise to
    find a genuine paper by Alpher, Bethe and Gamow, dated April I
    in The Physical Review for 1948.
    A further variation of humour is produced when a false incongruity
    is expected by the victim, and an incongruity then genuinely
    occurs which he promptly discounts. The late Sir Francis
    Simon had this happen to him when he was head of a laboratory in
    Germany. One night his research students were working with
    liquid hydrogen, and there was an explosion which damaged the
    laboratory some time after midnight. One of the research students
    telephoned the professor to inform him of the damage. All he
    could get from Sir Francis was an amiable ‘All right, I know what
    day it is !’ It was the morning of April I.
    HOAXES
    Simple incongruities, direct or inverted, can be humorous enough,
    but the more advanced jokes usually involve a period of preparation
    and induction, sometimes elaborate, before the incongruity
    becomes apparent. They are called hoaxes. Maxwell’s jokes were
    often simple in their preparation; he is credited with having
    engineered the advertisement of his Inaugural Lecture at Cambridge
    (which is still very worth reading) in such a manner that
    only his undergraduate students heard of it, and he gave it to them
    alone. The senior members of the University merely saw that the
    new professor would deliver his first lecture on a particular day,
    and they attended in force. This lecture, however, was the first of
    his undergraduate course, and his delighted students enjoyed the
    experience of seeing Maxwell gravely expounding, though with a
    betraying twinkle in his eye, the difference between the Fahrenheit
    and Centigrade scales to men like Adams, Cayley, and Stokes.
    With some hoaxes the period of induction of the victim may be
    extended. In this type, which is probably the most interesting
    philosophically, the object is to build up in the victim’s mind a false
    world-picture which is temporarily consistent by any tests that
    he can apply to it, so that he ultimately takes action on it with
    confidence. The falseness of the picture is then starkly revealed
    by the incongruity which his action precipitates. It has not proved
    difficult, for example, to persuade a Doctor of Philosophy to
    lower his telephone carefully into a bucket of water in the belief
    that he was cooperating with the engineer in the telephone
    exchange in finding a leak to earth. The prior induction consisted
    of building up in his mind a picture of something being wrong
    with his telephone by such tactics as repeatedly ringing the bell
    and then ringing off as he answered.
    As a further example, we may recall one of the works of a
    German physicist, Dr Carl Bosch, who about 1934 was working
    as a research student in a laboratory which overlooked a block of
    flats. His studies revealed that one of the flats was occupied by a
    newspaper correspondent, and so he telephoned this victim, pretending
    to be his own professor. The ‘professor’ announced that
    he had just perfected a television device which could enable the
    user to see the speaker at the other end. The newspaper man was
    incredulous, but the ‘professor’ offered to give a demonstration;
    all the pressman had to do was to strike some attitude, and the
    voice on the telephone would tell him what he was doing. The
    telephone was, of course, in direct view of the laboratory, and so
    all the antics of the pressman were faithfully described. The result
    was an effusive article in the next day’s paper and, subsequently, a
    bewildered conversation between the true professor and the
    pressman.
    The induction of the victim can take many forms. One of the
    favourite ways is an acclimatization by slow change. R W Wood
    is said to have spent some time in a flat in Paris where he discovered
    that the lady in the flat below kept a tortoise in a window
    pen. Wood fashioned a collecting device from a broom-handle,
    and bought a supply of tortoises of dispersed sizes. While the lady
    was out shopping, Wood replaced her tortoise by one slightly
    larger. He repeated this operation each day until the growth of
    the tortoise became so obvious to its owner that she consulted
    Wood who, having first played a subsidiary joke by sending her
    to consult a Professor at the Sorbonne whom he considered to be
    devoid of humour, advised her to write the press. When the tortoise
    had grown to such a size that several pressmen were taking
    a daily interest, Wood then reversed the process, and in a week
    or so the tortoise mysteriously contracted to its original dimensions.
    -----------------------------------------------------------------------
    A physicist had a horseshoe hanging on the door of his laboratory.
    His colleagues were surprised and asked whether he believed that
    it would bring luck to his experiments. He answered: ‘No, I don’t
    believe in superstitions. But I have been told that it works even
    if you don’t believe in it.’
    [Told by I B Cohen, the Harvard historian ofphysics, to S A Goudsmit
    who told it to Bohr, whose favourite srory it became.]
    found it in a book: 'A random walk in science'


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  3. #2  
    precious sir ir r aj's Avatar
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    continued......
    HOAXES IN WAR
    Induced incongruities have a high place in warfare, where if the
    enemy can be induced to take incorrect action the war may be
    advantageously affected. A stratagem in which some of my wartime
    colleagues were involved is now well known as ‘The man
    who never was.’ These same colleagues also woiked with me in
    some technical deceptions, of which one was the persuasion of the
    Germans in 1943 that our successes against the U-boats were due
    not to centimetric radar but to a fictitious infrared detector. We
    gained some valuable months while the Germans invented a
    beautiful anti-infrared paint and failed to find the true causes of
    their losses. The paint, incidentally, was a Christiansen filter of
    powdered glass in a transparent matrix over a black base. The
    filter ‘peaked’ in the near infrared, so that incident radiation in
    this region went through and was absorbed in the underlying
    black. Visible light was scattered back by the filter, which thus
    gave a light grey appearance to the eye, but was black to the near
    infrared. This simulated admirably the reflecting power of water,
    and thus camouflaged the U-boat. It was afterwards reported
    that the inventor of the paint was Dr Carl Bosch.
    Before I turn to the more serious side of this lecture there is one
    further story from Physics in which the exact classification of the
    incongruity can be left as a problem to be worked out at leisure.
    It concerns Lord Kelvin’s lectures at Glasgow, where he used to
    fire a bullet at a ballistic pendulum; as an undergraduate at Oxford
    I had heard a story of how Kelvin missed on one occasion, with
    the result that the bullet went through a wall and smashed the
    blackboard of the lecturer next door. Kelvin rushed into the next
    room in some alarm to find the lecturer unscathed, and the class
    shouting ‘Missed him-try again, Bill.’ This experiment has now
    produced a further incident, and to avoid any doubt I wrote to
    Professor Dee for his own account of what happened. This is
    what he says:
    ‘In the Quincentenary Celebrations here I had to lecture on the
    history of the Department. Of course Kelvin figured strongly in
    this. One of Kelvin’s traditional experiments was to fire a rifle
    bullet at a very large ballistic pendulum. All his students regarded
    this as the highlight of the course. He was reputed to have the gun
    charged with a big dose of powder-the barrel is about half an
    inch internal diameter. I decided this experiment must be repeated
    but there was great alarm here that the barrel would burst
    and annihilate the front row (Principal and Senate). So I decided
    to use a modern rifle. I also decided to make it a double purpose
    experiment by using Kelvin’s invention of the optical lever to
    display the pendulum swing to a large audience. On the night all
    went off well.
    ‘The next day I repeated the whole lecture to the ordinary class.
    Mr Atkinson was the normal lecturer to this class and he had
    noticed that in referring to the dual purpose of the demonstration
    I used the phrase “. . . fitted a mirror to the pendulum so that I
    may kill two birds with one stone.” After the explosion to my
    surprise a pigeon fell with a bloody splash on to a large white
    paper on the bench-our lecture room is very high. I tried to
    resolve the situation by saying “Well although Mr. Atkinson isn’t
    lecturing to you today he appears to be behind the scenes somewhere.
    But he does seem to have failed to notice that I said two
    birds with one stone !” Immediately a second pigeon splashed on
    the bench! Whether this was due to a slip up in Atkinson’s
    mechanical arrangements or to his brilliant anticipation of how I
    would react I don’t really know but I always give him the credit
    of the second explanation.
    ‘Anyway the students loved it but I wonder how many would
    remember about the optical lever ?’
    TECHNICAL SPOOF IN WAR
    I want to turn now to technical deception in war, as exemplified
    by our attempts to mislead the German night defences in their
    appreciation of our raiding intentions. The method here is that
    of the induced incongruity; by a false presentation of evidence
    we wish the enemy controller to build up an incorrect but selfconsistent
    world-picture, thus causing him to generate the incongruity
    of directing his nightfighters to some place where our
    bombers are not. I originally developed this ‘Theory of Spoof’ in a
    wartime report; the salient points, which have some interest in
    physical theory, are the following. As with all hoaxes the first
    thing is to put oneself in the victim’s place (indeed, a good hoax
    requires a sympathetic nature), to see what evidence he has with
    which to construct and test his world-picture. In night aerial
    warfare in 1939-45, this evidence was mainly the presence of
    deflections in the trace of the cathode ray observing tube. Therefore
    any device which would give rise to such deflections could
    provide an element of Spoof. One such device was a jammer
    which would cause fluctuating deflections all the time, thus concealing
    the true deflections due to the echo from an aircraft. This,
    like a smoke screen, would render the enemy unaware that you
    are where you are. A more positive technique is to provide a false
    echo, and if possible to suppress the genine one, thus giving him
    the impression that you are where you are not. The easiest way of
    providing a false echo is to drop packets of thin metal strips, cut to
    resonate to the enemy’s radar transmissions. This is, of course,
    what we did in 1943. There is little time to tell now of the fortunes
    of this technique, but the packets were extremely successful, and
    they changed the character of air warfare at night. At first, the
    German controllers confused the individual packets with aircraft;
    I can still remember the frustrated tones of one controller repeatedly
    ordering a packet to waggle its wings as a means of
    identification. Soon, however, the Germans gave up the attempt to
    make detailed interceptions, and tried to get a swarm of fighters
    into our bomber streams. We then used many tinfoil packets
    dropped by a few aircraft to provide the appearance of spoof raids,
    which lured the nightfighters off the track of our main raids.
    As the war went on the Germans gradually found ways of distinguishing
    between echoes from metal foil packets and those from
    aircraft. The packets, for example, resonated to one particular
    frequency, and therefore they had a relatively poor response to
    another frequency. If two radar stations watched on widely
    separate frequencies, a genuine aircraft echo would be present on
    both, whereas the foil echo would appear only on one. The foil
    could, of course, be cut to different lengths, but as the number of
    frequencies was increased, the amount of foil needed was greater.
    Moreover there was a pronounced Doppler effect on the echo
    from an aircraft, with its high speed, but little effect on the echoes
    from the foil drifting with the wind. Thus, against an omniscient
    controller, we have to make the decoy echoes move with the
    speed of aircraft, and reflect different frequencies in the same way.
    This is easiest done by making a glider of the same size as the
    bomber. Then if we allow the enemy controller to use sound and
    infrared detectors and other aids, we find that the only decoy
    which can mislead him into thinking that there is a British bomber
    flying through his defences is another British bomber flying through
    his defences.
    Another example is one that I encountered earlier in what has
    been called ‘The Battle of the Beams’ in 1740. Here the problem
    was to upset the navigation of the German night bombers, when
    they were flying along radio beams to their targets. The signals
    received by the pilots telling them to steer right or !eft were
    counterfeited in this country, and sometimes resulted in their
    flying on curvilinear courses. However, had the pilots had unlimited
    time of observation they could have detected that there
    was something wrong, even if we had exactly synchronized our
    transmitters with those of the Germans. The bombers were in
    general flying away from their own transmitters and towards
    ours, and so they would have received a Doppler beat from which
    they could have deduced that a second transmitter was active. If
    one allows the possibility of various simple tests, which fortunately
    would take too long in actual warfare, one arrives at the
    conclusion that the only place for a second transmitter which will
    simulate the original exactly is coincident with the original and
    the counterfeit thus defeats its purpose.


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  4. #3  
    Genius Duck Moderator Dywyddyr's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by sir ir r aj View Post
    One does not expect, for example, any congruity about the names of joint authors of scientific papers. It was therefore rather a surprise to find a genuine paper by Alpher, Bethe and Gamow, dated April Iin The Physical Review for 1948.
    To the best of my knowledge that wasn't an incongruity so much as a deliberate joke.
    Alpher and Gamow (from memory - it had to be 2 of the 3) DELIBERATELY sought out Bethe before publishing in order to get the "alpha beta gamma" connotation. (I forget where I read it, but it's mentioned in one of my innumerable "pop-sci" books).

    Even a change of dimension is sufficient to cause an incongruity. Lord Cherwell has a story of a scientist at Farnborough in World War I, who was so dismayed by the delays in ordering commercial equipment that when he wanted a dark-room lamp he made a pencil sketch of one, to be made up by the workshop. It availed him little, however, because a proper engineer’s drawing had by regulation to be made in triplicate before the workshop would start. Weeks elapsed, and finally after a knock on his door two workmen wheeled in the largest dark-room lamp ever constructed.
    In making the workshop drawing the draughtsman had left out one dash, with the result that intended inches became actual feet.
    Even better one: a friend of mine once worked at Brough as a draughtsman. He was asked to measure, and produce new drawings for, the engine cowling on the historical example of the Blackburn B2:


    Now, there's a number of approved ways of dimensioning a drawing, usually one sees something like this:



    but, with a long component the "ladder" of dimensions may be too large for the drawing sheet, so an acceptable alternative is to do it this way:



    (Not exactly - my CAD packages require me to log out and reboot into Windows XP and I can't be arsed, but you get the idea).
    Unfortunately the guys in the workshop weren't aware of the convention and, some time later, my friend looked out of his office window to see now fewer than FIVE men walking out of the sheet metal shop carrying a near fourteen-foot long cowling: someone had taken each dimension as a distance from the previous one, rather than from the zero datum.
    Needless to say, it didn't quite fit on the aircraft.

    Just saw the second post.
    An additional "fun" part of the foil strip (known as "window" to the RAF) spoof is that the Germans were thoroughly aware of the concept but refrained from using it in case the RAF took and used the idea against them.
    When the RAF started to use it the Germans mistakenly assumed that we Brits reasoned the same way they did and that, since we had started to use it then we weren't scared of them using on us because (they thought) we already knew how to counter it. We didn't (until later), but due to their belief that we could they didn't use it against us.
    R. V. Jones book Most Secret War has a number of "practical jokes" that turned out to be useful during the war.
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  5. #4  
    Forum Professor Daecon's Avatar
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    I played a physics practical joke on my old science professor by lowering the value of the Strong Nuclear Force of the matter composing his body. We all laughed as he evaporated into nothingness.
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  6. #5  
    Genius Duck Moderator Dywyddyr's Avatar
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    Maybe this is the time to mention the experiment I and a couple of other fellow students performed at Reading university.
    We established that acceleration due to gravity was approximately 3.5 m/ s2.
    But, after careful consideration, we decided that that value probably was only valid for that particular spot in the laboratory, and that 9.81 m/ s2 was an acceptable figure for the rest of the Earth A.

    A Unfortunately that wasn't accepted as an excuse by our professor.

    ETA: in case you're wondering - no, there isn't a gravitational anomaly in one of the buildings at Reading. It turned out that the ACTUAL explanation was that we were (no surprise) a bunch of f*ckwits and we'd set up the experiment with faulty equipment.
    Last edited by Dywyddyr; December 30th, 2013 at 08:13 PM.
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  7. #6  
    precious sir ir r aj's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Daecon View Post
    I played a physics practical joke on my old science professor by lowering the value of the Strong Nuclear Force of the matter composing his body. We all laughed as he evaporated into nothingness.
    ! Mr. D liked your post. Unbelievable.
    Now explain your joke, why is it so important?
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    Theatre Whore babe's Avatar
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    I have played Innumerable practical jokes on people...and they have they have also played them on me....I find them quite funny....but the clue is this

    You never are mean in one or demean in one....

    Ours have always left people crying from laughing and vice versa....nothing wrong with a great practical joke that hurts no one.
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