Friday, September 16, 2016

Enrico Fermi Reimagined as a Marshmallow Bunny

Speaking of Enrico Fermi (as I did in my previous post) brings to mind a competition that the University of Chicago sponsored seven years ago. The competition, open only to U. of Chicago alumni, was to recreate a scene from the campus using Peeps, those marshmallow bunnies and chicks that appear mysteriously every year around Easter and then just as mysteriously disappear. (No one actually eats them, do they?)

I leaped to the challenge, but immediately faced two obstacles. The first was that as a  Ph.D. alumnus of the university, I had spent all of my time at Chicago chained to my desk, with my advisor sliding food under my office door at irregular intervals. So I had no memory of any famous campus scenes to recreate. But one scene did come to mind -- this iconic photo of Enrico Fermi:

There's actually a mistake in this photo -- can you find it?  Answer at the end of the post.
Every physics department has its heroic figures -- creatures of myth and legend who bestrode the department when giants walked the Earth -- and Fermi plays this role at Chicago. But having chosen my Chicago scene, I faced a second obstacle: a complete lack of artistic talent. As I am an oldest child, my mother saved all of my kindergarten artwork, and it clearly shows my development as an artist -- in the course of the year I progressed from drawing stick figures in black crayon to drawing stick figures with many colors. And I haven't gotten any further since then. So I enlisted the assistance of my (then) 11-year-old daughter, Lucy, And here is what we (and by "we", I mean "she") produced:

Enrico Fermi, the marshmallow bunny.  The error in the original photo is repeated here -- how's that for verisimilitude?
So did we win the competition?

Sadly, we did not. But our entry was picked up by Fermilab's house publication, Symmetry Magazine.  And my daughter has gone on to college in theatre design, where she has had the opportunity to move beyond marshmallows as a design medium.

And what about the error in the photo?  The fine structure constant is alpha = e^2/hbar c, not hbar^2/ec.  Kind of ruins the whole effect, doesn't it?

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