Surely I'm Joking!: A Physicist's Personal Essays

by Tatsuo Tabata
Copyright © 1999-2004 by Tatsuo Tabata
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Contents of This Page

5. Do They Sell Canned Yukawa Particles?
6. "I Was Destined to Write . . ."
7. Two Kinds of Joy: About Hawking's Birthday Talk
8. Narcissus and Immunology
9. The Spinning Egg Rises
10. A Mathematician's Desire
11. Young Ladies' Conversation
12. The Logic of Love
13. Relay Composition
14. Asymmetry in Kissing
15. Typo or True Value?
16. Another Statistical Study on Right and Left
17. Physics of Stone Skipping
18. Frogs or Flags?

Go to All the Contents of "Surely I'm Joking!"

5. Do They Sell Canned Yukawa Particles?

"Pion." The Yukawa particle?

These days we see a product named "Pion" on the shelves of vending machines here in Japan (see the photograph). Pion is a particle, which is the lightest among hadrons that feel the strong force. Its existence was predicted by the Japanese physicist Hideki Yukawa in 1935. Do they sell canned Yukawa particles now? -- No, it is a soft (not strong) drink sold by Coca-Cola Company. In fact, the soft drink Pion is pronounced in our country not as pie-on like the Yukawa particle but as pi-on, where "pi" represents the sound of "pi" in "pit."

26 Aug 2000

6. "I Was Destined to Write . . ."

cover The cover of Marcia Bartusiak's book, "Einstein's Unfinished Symphony." Clicking the image leads you to the buying information page of the book at web site.

I have been submitting customer reviews on books to since August 2000 (see "Book Reviews by tttabata"). The 21st review was on Marcia Bartusiak's "Einstein's Unfinished Symphony." This book elegantly portrays the hunting for gravitational waves, the existence of which was predicted by Einstein's theory of general relativity. Immediately after my review had been posted at the Amazon web site, I received unexpectedly an e-mail message of thanks from the author.

I found it interesting that the author uses "bar2siak" for her e-mail account. The original detector invented by Joseph Weber for directly catching gravity waves consisted of a big aluminum cylinder surrounded by piezoelectric sensors and suspended in a vacuum tank. This type of detector is called "bar." Further, a pair of bars is commonly used to cancel noises out by the coincidence method. Thus "bar2" can be interpreted as two bars used for trying to detect gravity waves and described in detail in "Einstein's Unfinished Symphony." Wondering if she had noticed it herself, I wrote this finding of mine to the author.

Ms. Bartusiak wrote me back:

I never thought of my e-mail address in that way. You're right! I guess I was destined to write on gravitational-wave bars after all.

It is again interesting that the science journalist used the religious word "destined."

The writer acknowledges Ms. Bartusiak's kind permission for citing the above passage from her e-mail letter.

24 Aug 2001

7. Two Kinds of Joy: About Hawking's Birthday Talk

The British physicist and astronomer Stephen William Hawking is considered to be the greatest theorist of the latter twenties century. He is especially known for his theories on black holes and the origin and evolution of the universe.1 To celebrate his 60th birthday, a workshop and symposium were held in Cambridge from 7 to 11 January 2002.2

Hawking delivered the final talk of the meeting. The title of his talk was "60 Years in a Nutshell," a humorous modification of the title of his recent book.3 The talk consists of four parts:

  1. Student Days
  2. Expanding Universe
  3. Singularities
  4. Black Holes
  5. Ultimate Theory?

At the end of the talk, the great cosmologist says, " There's nothing like the Eureka moment of discovering something that no one knew before. I won't compare it to sex, but it lasts longer." While saying that he would not do so, Hawking compares the two kinds of joy. Surely, the joy of discovering scientific truth would last long. However, there would be a different theory about the time length of the other kind of joy, wouldn't there?

  1. "The New York Public Library Science Desk Reference," P. Barnes-Svarney ed. (MacMillan, New York, 1995).
  2. G. W. Gibbons and E. P. S. Shellard, Science, Vol. 295, 1476 (2002).
  3. S. Hawking, "The Universe in a Nutshell" (Bantam, New York, 2001).

9 Mar 2002

8. Narcissus and Immunology

The cover of the "Science" magazine issued on 12 April 2002 shows Narcissus gazing at his reflection, as depicted by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1573 - 1610). This picture is used for the special section "Reflections on self: Immunity and beyond." The following explanation is given on the contents page of the issue:

As the story from Greek mythology reminds us, and as discussed in this issue, effective recognition of self is important to general survival and to successful immune surveillance, reproduction, community structure, and philosophical integration of the individual.

Reading the above explanation, I thought that "effective recognition of self" meant narcissism, because Narcissus highly valued his own reflection. Then the special section seems to say that narcissism is good for biological a reason. Is this right? The introductory article of the section, "Self-discrimination, a life and death issue" written by Stephen J. Simpson and Pamela J. Hines, however made me notice that my thought was wrong.

Narcissus could not notice that his reflection was his own image, and fall in love with it. However, he was unable to be loved by it, was exhausted and died. So what he did was not the effective recognition of self, but non-recognition of self as such. To work well the immune system has to know which are the cells of own body and which are not. This is what is meant by "effective recognition of self." -- Caravaggio's painting was not cited to praise narcissism. --

21 Apr 2002

9. The Spinning Egg Rises

Scientists theoretically explained the paradoxical behavior of a hard-boiled egg: if it is spun with its axis of symmetry horizontal, this axis will rise from the horizontal to the vertical, raising the center of gravity. -- This is not a joke. See the reference.1 -- They traced the essential mechanism to the action of the frictional force between the spinning object and the table. Their paper was referred to in a column of a Japanese newspaper.2 A non-scientist friend of mine read the column, and told me that she wished to experiment. I noticed the original paper before, but did not think to experiment by myself. She had more of a scientist's mind than me.

Being stimulated by her words, I tried to rotate a boiled egg on the floor. It seemed difficult to make the egg rotate fast enough around its axis of symmetry put horizontally to cause rising. Starting from rotation around the axis a little off the vertical, however, I could see the axis rising and becoming just vertical. This is wonderful enough. I heard that the friend had also succeeded in observing the odd motion of the egg. She added that she had been quite thrilled when the axis became vertical.

The scientists also write why a raw egg does not show the same behavior. It is because the angular velocity imparted to the shell diffuses into the fluid interior; this process dissipates most of the initial kinetic energy imparted to the egg, making the remaining energy insufficient for the condition of gyroscopic balance to be established. This is a type of research Torahiko Terada (Japanese physicist, astronomer and essayist. Professor of Tokyo University. 1878 - 1935; see a portrait) would have liked.

  1. H. K. Moffatt and Y. Shimomura, "Spinning eggs -- a paradox resolved," Nature Vol. 416, pp. 385-386 (2002).
  2. Y. Uchiyama, "Self-rising boiled eggs," Asahi-Shimbun, 22 Apr., p. 23, (2002).

25 Apr 2002

10. A Mathematician's Desire

In the 15-Aug evening issue of Asahi-shimbun, the mathematician and essayist Masahiko Fujiwara writes a comical essay entitled "Odoriko Motomu (A dancer wanted)". When his mathematical work comes to a difficulty, he goes on a trip as he pleases. During those trips he wishes to meet such a lady as the heroine dancer in the Nobel-Prize winning writer Kawabata Yasunari's novel, "Izu-no-odoriko (The dancer of Izu)". The hero of the novel, a high school student, found the dancer crying without being able to say him "Good-bye".

Prof. Fujiwara writes that the lady whom he wishes to encounter is not necessarily be a dancer but that it is important for her to cry without being able to say "Good-bye." His desire was intensified because his wife got love letters from an English gentleman. However, the desire has never come true, and thus he has lost hope for its realization a little.

Everyman possibly has a similar desire of having a romantic adventure on a trip, but no one can write about it with an excellent sense of humor like Prof. Fujiwara. I am only afraid that as a result of that essay he might get so many letters from ladies who want to be a dancer for him.

I have memories of some young ladies with whom I talked on the train during my trips in younger days. A physics student going to get an exam for the grauate course, an office lady of Hiroshima, a mysterious lady who majored in English literature, . . . I do not think that they remember me. Each one of them and I enjoyed our conversation to some extent, but said simply "Good-bye" to each other when we took off the train.

18 Aug 2002

11. Young Ladies' Conversation

One day in early autumn about 20 years ago, I was on a bus. Then a conversation between two young ladies was heard. One of them said, "I went camping this summer with our group." The other said, "So, you were seen naked by lads, weren't you?" The first lady replied, "Maybe. In the morning a lad pointed his front side and said to me, 'Look at this. This is the proof of my vigor.'" And both of them chuckled.

Having no experience of camping, I do not know why lads can see ladies naked in camping. Anyway, I thought that this was not the kind of talk to be made in the public vehicle. The ladies' voices were however so fresh and innocent that I liked their conversation after all. When autumn comes, I often remind myself of that private talk between the nymphets.

24 Aug 2002

12. The Logic of Love

Assume that the statement

A is B.

is true. Then the statement

‘not A’ is ‘not B.’

is called the obverse of the original statement. The obverse is not always true. Interchanging the subject and the predicate of the obverse, we get another statement

‘not B’ is ‘not A.’

This statement is called the contraposition of the original statement. The contraposition is always true.

I learned the above logic from a young lady teacher of mathematics in the first year of senior high school. So I remember it well. However, you can understand it easily by drawing a small circle enclosed in a large circle and supposing that the inside of the small circle is A and that the inside of the large circle is B.

In the previous story A Mathematician's Desire, I mentioned about a comical essay written by the mathematician Masahiko Fujiwara. I found another short essay1 of his that treated the obverse to be quite funny. The essay is entitled: Is “‘not A’ is ‘not B’” true?

Without using jargons, Professor Fujiwara teaches the reader that the obverse is false in many cases, but can be true in some cases. He does this by the use of interesting examples. Examples of the false obverse are given by the original statements of daily observation, “The tulip is beautiful,” “Snow is white,” and “What bothers others is what you must not do.” An example of the true obverse is given by the mathematical original statement, “If the polygon is the triangle, then the sum of its inner angles is equal to 180 degrees.”

Finally the mathematician gives an example of the obverse that can be decided neither true nor false. The original statement of this example is “If the woman is your wife, then you may love her.” He writes:

As for the statement, “If the woman is not your wife, then you must not love her,” the opinion of my wife and me are different.

I guess that Professor Fujiwara is actually a good husband as well as a good teacher.

  1. M. Fujiwara, Asahi-Shimbun, Evening Edition, 17 Dec. (2002).

9 Jan 2003

13. Relay Composition

In my childhood I played a word play, "Someone did something with some other one . . ." It needs a plural number of participants. Each participant writes "Someone," "did something," "with some other one," "at some place," and "at some time" on separate sheets of paper by putting concrete expressions for "some . . ." as he or she likes.

Then all the sheets of "Someone" are mixed, all the sheets of "did something" are mixed, and so on. Each participant randomly choose a sheet of "Someone," a sheet of "did something," and so on, and reads them aloud. A set of sheets thus chosen often gives a wild story.

An extended version of the above play is "relay composition." I also played it in student days. In this play, each of several participants reads only one paragraph written just before and adds one paragraph. The story completed can be quite funny.

When I played relay composition during a New Year vacation, a friend of mine with the nickname of Sam wrote a good final paragraph. I still remember its plot after more than 40 years. I do not remember earlier five paragraphs written by participants other than Sam (including my own), but in essence those must have been something like this:

Jack and Betty lived in K City and were good friends. After graduating from a university, Jack got a job at another city. It was far from K City, and Jack had to move there. Betty was going to be lonely.

What do you write after this, if you are requested to conclude the above story? Sam's final paragraph was as follows:

On the day of his removal, Jack got a card from Betty. It read, "I'm going to move, too. My new address is 1-2 S Street, T City." Jack wanted to take a walk to relax from the work of removal. Outside the gate of his new house, he looked back to see the nameplate. It read, "1-2 S Street . . ."

This is a very witty plot just for the play of a short time, isn't it? Regrettably Sam died several years ago.

27 Jan 2003

14. Asymmetry in Kissing

I found an interesting research report in Nature. It includes a photo of Auguste Rodin’s masterpiece The Kiss, in which a couple is kissing by turning their heads to the right. The author of the report is Onur Güntürkün, a psychologist at the University of Ruhr. What do you think is the theme of this report?

The title of the report is “Adult persistence of head-turning asymmetry.”1 Other authors found earlier that humans preferred to turn the head to the right for the final weeks of the fetus and for the first six months after birth. Güntürkün has found that this head motor bias persists into adulthood.

Güntürkün observed 124 kissing couples in public places in the United States, Germany and Turkey. The result shows that 80 pairs (64.6%) turned their head to the right and that 44 (35.5%) turned to the left. This indicates the significant head-turning bias towards the right side, just like fetuses and newborns.

Which side do you turn your heads in kissing, to the right or to the left? Do you want to check it right now?

  1. O. Güntürkün, Nature, Vol. 421, 711 (2003); addendum, ibid., Vol. 421, 711 (2003); See also S. Graham, “Kissing the right way,” Sci. Amer. News 13 Feb (2003)

16 Feb 2003

15. Typo or True Value?

In the evening edition of the Asahi dated February 27, 2003, an article about the Akutagawa Prize appeared. This prize is the most prestigious literature award in Japan. The article read:

The presentation ceremony of the 128th Akutagawa Prize (sponsored by Japan Association for Literature Promotion) was held in Tokyo on February 21, and Ms. Tamaki Daido received the main reward of a watch and the prize money of 100 yens. ...

Imagining the scene of Ms. Daido getting a 100-yen coin (about 80 cents) respectfully, I laughed and laughed. The next evening’s Asahi carried a correction to rectify the amount to 1 million yens. It is 100-man yens in Japanese expression; man (ten thousands) is denoted by a single Chinese character. So the dropping of that one character causes a large difference.

The article in the Asahi also told about the following words of Senji Kuroi, a member of the Nomination Committee of the Akutagawa Prize, to praise the Prize-winning work "Shoppai Doraibu" (Salty Driving):

The method of composing this work is stable, and the work has a firm structure. It well conveys the feeling of the heroine I, who is attracted by both a middle-aged man and the star actor of a local theatrical troupe. ...

The work was later published in book form, and the review of it appeared in the Asahi of March 23, 2003. The reviewer Atsushi Onoya wrote:

(This work) has no climax, no surprise ending, nor any meaning. ... Readers should not wrongly think that such is one of the top works of literature. ...

This is one of the most scathing book reviews I have ever read. If this were a right appraisal of the work, the prize money of 100 yens would have been appropriate. The evaluation of literary works seems to be a difficult thing.

25 Mar 2003

16. Another Statistical Study on Right and Left

In Section 14 of this collection of essays, I introduced a psychologist's statistical study on the side of a pair's turning of their head in kissing. Amar Klar of the National Cancer Institute in Maryland, USA, made another statistical study on right and left.

According to an article in Nature Science Update,1 Klar secretly inspected people's top of the head by spying on them in airports and shopping malls, ignoring the longhaired and the bald. He found the followings2: More than 95% of right-handers' hair whorled clockwise on the scalp and that the locks of lefties and the ambidextrous are equally likely to coil either way.

I write with the right hand, use a driver and some other tools with the left hand, and have a pair of whorls curing clockwise and anticlockwise. This is quite consistent with Klar's reuslt.

Klar is reported to have said, "A single gene with either 'right' or 'random' forms might underlie the trend. People with one or two copies of the right version would be right-handed, with clockwise hair; those with two random versions would split 50/50 for handedness and hair whorls." He is now seeking such a gene.

The article also says: Left-handed or ambidextrous people are more likely to store language in the right side of the brain, are more prone to schizophrenia and, anecdotally, are more often creative or even geniuses. -- Oh, I'm prone to schizophrenia or may be a genius! --

  1. "Handedness equals hairstyle: One gene might control both - and explain the divided brain," Nature Science Update, Sep. 4 2003.
  2. A. J. S. Klar, "Human handedness and scalp hair whorl direction develop from a common genetic mechanism," Genetics, in press (2003).

9 Sep 2003

17. Physics of Stone Skipping

In January 2004, my wife and I joined a 13-day travel to New Zealand organized by JTB West. It included a two-day visit to Moeraki in the heart of South West New Zealand World Heritage Area. In the morning of the second day in Moeraki, the local guide Andy brought us to Monro Beach facing the Tasman Sea. There he often played stone skipping picking up flat and circular pebbles.

I said to Andy, "To get the maximum number of bounces, you had better give maximum spin to the stone and throw it so as to make the attack angle between the stone and the water surface 20 degrees. Do you know the world record of stone skipping?" He did not know the world record. I told him that it was 38 rebounds.

I learned all these things about stone skipping just before going on the travel. It was from the article entitled "Secrets of successful stone-skipping" and written by the French scientists Christophe Clanet, Fabien Hersen and Lydéric Bocquet.1

However, a different set of experiments would be necessary to find the optimum throwing for Andy's stone skipping. The wave of the Tasman Sea was rather large, so that Andy was throwing stones not directly to the sea but to the region of the wet sandy beach from which the wave had just retreated. The stones rebounded five or six times on the sands and then on water!

  1. C. Clanet, F. Hersen and L. Bocquet, Nature Vol. 427, p. 29 (2004).

29 Jan 2004

18. Frogs or Flags?

Past April I made my first trip to Shikoku, and found the street name "Hata" in the city of Kochi. "Hata" means, "Flags (are) plenty (here)," and is expressed by two Chinese characters. The faithful pronunciation of the characters would be "Hatata." Two ta's must have been shortened to a single ta.

My last name "Tabata" is expressed by the same two characters as those of Hata put in the reverse order. I say to the overseas friends of mine, "My last name means many flags." The flags of Hata and Tabata are of a vertically long kind (nobori-bata) such as used by samurai in wars. I suppose that many samurai of the Taira clan (Heike) secretly lived in Hata after being beaten by the Minamoto clan (Genji) in 1185 in a naval battle at Dannoura.

Possibly my last name comes from the fact that my father-side ancestors were fishermen, not samurai, in a village facing the Japan Sea. They must have come back from fishing with many flags on the boat when they got much fish.

On hearing my explanation of my last name, some overseas friends of mine ask me which I mean, frogs or flags, because my English pronunciation is poor. I say, "Stars and Stripes is the American flag. That flag!" Once I said this to a British friend of mine. I should have referred to Union Jack on that occasion!

Modified from my comment on "Another Typhoon" posted at the website "Obachan's Scribbles"

31 Aug 2004

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