Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Origins of an Old Physics Joke

Here's a joke that often makes the rounds of physics departments:

The 3 stages of a newly-published result are

1.  It's wrong.

2.  OK, it's not wrong, but it's trivial.

3.  OK, it's correct, and it's important, but I did it first.

(I think every theoretical physicist has experienced all three of these, although at different times and on different research projects). It turns out that the origins of this joke are more hoary than I could possibly have imagined -- it dates back to a 19th-century scientist!

According to Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius at the University of Tennessee, the joke originated with the great German naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, after whom the Humboldt penguin is named. (My source is this book on tape by Liulevicius). I suppose it's only fitting, since I've had many physicist colleagues spend time in Germany on the Humboldt Fellowship. All of our best ideas (and jokes) really were stolen by the ancients.


Kathy said...

That's similar to Clarke's three steps for a new idea:

1) It's impossible.
2) It might be possible, but it's not worth doing.
3) I said it was a great idea all along.

I've listened to several of Liulevicius' lectures from the Great Courses, but have stuck to those pertaining more to modern history thus far. Is the one on exploration worth expending an Audible credit? Right now I'm more focused on ancient history, modern history, science and, lately, unconventional thinkers like Gladwell, Leavitt and Dubner.

Robert Scherrer said...

I've enjoyed everything that is on offer from Liulevicius. I've also found the reader ratings at Great Courses to be very accurate - crowdsourcing works.

Kathy said...

Thanks! I may try it after I'm done with my current podcast backlog.