APS News

Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science

Physicists Didn't Touch Ground in Something-apolis

By Joel Achenbach, Washington Post

I just flew in from either Minneapolis or Indianapolis. It was definitely something-apolis. As a reporter I try to nail these things down when I do a story, because even the small details are important. Approximation isn't enough; for the moment I'm leaning hard toward Minneapolis. It was definitely somewhere in the Midwestern portion of the United States. There were some tall buildings.

Most of the time I remained in enclosed spaces, even when moving from my hotel to the convention center. Midwestern cities are deeply into skywalks now, to allow people to move around the downtown without constantly putting on and taking off their big ugly parkas. As I navigated the maze I kept thinking: Des Moines?

Intrepidly, I eventually descended to ground level and entered the outdoor portion of the city. I looked, without success, for the Mississippi River, which my educational background leads me to believe has an association with Minneapolis. I'm sure it was there. You can't hide something like that.

Some advice to the local city planners: In addition to all the little signs telling visitors where the convention center is, you should put up signs pointing to the place where Mary Tyler Moore threw her hat in the air. "Mary's Hat Toss" is all it has to say, with an arrow. Also, find some way to give the city more of "that Hubert H. Humphrey feeling."

The city is full of physicists this week, many thousands of them attending the big meeting of the American Physical Society. Physicists are great company: They spend so much time dealing with excruciatingly abstruse problems and endless squiggly equations that they have an inverse-square delight in jolly good times. Physicists will laugh at your jokes, even if, inside, they are secretly diagraming the humor and breaking it down into overlapping-yet-incompatible frames of reference.

The bad news is that occasionally they give a news conference to announce that they have discovered, for example, "A composite medium with simultaneously negative permeability and permittivity." I had to cover the story and approached it with some trepidation: I'm fine on permeability but my permittivity has always been awful.

Truth be known, I am so dim on electromagnetism that I'm still trying to figure out what's going on with the prongs on electrical plugs. Why are there now usually three prongs, and sometimes one of them is turned sideways? The news conference, as it turned out, could have been worse: The scientists could have been speaking in a language other than English. They did their best to conduct an emergency seminar on the propagation of microwave energy through different media. They drew equations on a chalkboard. They diagramed the resonance curve of "split ring resonators." They labored to demonstrate the elementary fact, predicted by Maxwell's equations, that when you have a material with BOTH negative permeability and negative permittivity - that is, negative Mu and negative Epsilon - you wind up with a medium that inverts the Doppler effect, Cerenkov radiation, and Snell's Law.

As they spoke I wanted to raise my hand and say, "Excuse me, is this event real, or am I having an anxiety dream?" It would not have surprised me to look down and discover that I wasn't wearing any clothes.

Nevertheless, journalism marches on. I filed the story. You can read it at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A56258-2000Mar21.htm

A featured speaker at the APS March Meeting session on "Voodoo Science," Joel Achenbach's online column, "Rough Draft," appears three times a week at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/nation/columns/roughdraft/, except when it needs to take an emergency vacation. He is the author of Captured by Aliens: The Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe. This 3/20/00 column is reprinted with permission.

Editor's Note: Phillip Schewe's take on the new composite material appeared in the June issue of APS News.


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