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Blog

A theremin fit for a gerbil, hairdos for physicists and the trouble with Richard Feynman

Calling all musical gerbils: a new take on the Theremin (Courtesy: Paul Goddard)

Calling all musical gerbils: a new take on the theremin. (Courtesy: Paul Goddard)

By Hamish Johnston

How we created spooky experimental music in a superconductor lab”: what physicist could resist clicking on this story, which appeared on the Guardian website earlier this week? Written by the physicist-turned-computational-biologist Andrew Steele, the article describes how Steele and a few pals converted a magnetic sensor into a musical instrument. Like the theremin, which is played by waving your hands around an antenna, this new instrument responds to the player’s motion. But because the sensor was optimized for studying superconductors rather than creating freaky mood music, Steele explains the “instrument covered three octaves in less than a centimetre of hand movement”. He suggests that playing the instrument should probably be left to a talented gerbil rather than talented superconductor researchers. You can listen to Steele’s attempt at making music on SoundCloud.

Steele’s performance is enough to make your hair stand on end, and that would make you look like at least three famous physicists in the 1920s and 1930s. One of course is Albert Einstein, but did you know that both Robert Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe sported vertical hairdos in their younger days? To see pictures of the two with their hair teased on high, check out “The hair of physicists”. Is it just me, or is Oppenheimer the spitting image of Bob Dylan and Bethe a doppelganger for Art Garfunkel?

That hair piece (ha ha) appears on Alex Wellerstein’s  Restricted Data blog, which also has a very intriguing article entitled “Who smeared Richard Feynman?”. The title refers to a letter that was written in 1958 and sent to J Edgar Hoover, then director of the FBI. The nine pages of correspondence condemn the legendary theoretical physicist as a “master of deception” and list an array of Feynman’s talents that could be used against the US. “This man is not a loyal citizen,” says the writer, who is concerned that Feynman could be appointed as a science advisor to the US president. Who does Wellerstein think wrote the letter? He argues it was Feynman’s ex-wife.

Feynman’s often disturbing relationships with women have been a topic of much discussion elsewhere in the blogosphere thanks to a post that appeared a week ago on the Scientific American website, only to be removed and then restored.

Richard Feynman, sexism and changing perceptions of a scientific icon” by Ashutosh Jogalekar argues that “it would also be premature and simplistic” to write off Richard Feynman as “sexist” across the board. Others beg to differ and on his blog Galileo’s Pendulum, Matthew Francis asks “how do we cope with the problem of Richard Feynman?”. As well as giving his excellent take on the question, Francis links to several other bloggers who have considered the problem of how to treat a person who is brilliant in some aspects of their life, but deeply flawed in others.

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3 comments

  1. M. Asghar

    It will be good for the PW and its followers to hear sometime someting about the other physicists of the Science Pantheon: Yukawa, Boss, Salam, Josephson, Curies, Raman, Born, Dirac, Franck, Ramsay, Rabi, Compton, de Broglie, Roche, Pauli, Fermi,…, as it will lighten the quite weighing down and recurring “tribal scannig” limited to Feynman, Oppenheimer, Einstein, …!

  2. Trackback: Physics Viewpoint | A theremin fit for a gerbil, hairdos for physicists and the trouble with Richard Feynman

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