dinner-party conversations…

I was paging through a book on temperature by the physicist Gino Segre today and noticed the first comment under the “Praise for A Matter of Degrees” section:

“Segre’s informal style reads like a dinner-party conversation with a physicist.” – The Washington Post

It got me thinking – what exactly do people think a dinner-party conversation with a physicist is like? Was the Washington Post’s comment a compliment or a dig at the jargon-laden words we throw into even informal conversations?

I was shoe shopping at the mall with some friends a few years ago, having fun flirting with the salesman. He asked me what I was studying and I dropped the p-word. Big mistake. The conversation died on the spot. “Oh” he said, and then avoided me the rest of the time that I was in the store. Apparently he wasn’t too interested in having a shoe-store conversation with a physicist, much less a dinner conversation.

I and many of my physicist friends have had the experience of telling someone that we study physics and immediately being asked, “What do you think about string theory? I saw this nova special…” While I applaud the program and the attention it brought to physics, I had (and still have) little knowledge on the subject and even less insight on it to offer. But it seems that many people think string theory is a popular subject for physicists to discuss not just at dinner, but on plane rides, in stores, and on buses.

Physicists are known for having quirks – just check out the travel tips and stories in the recent issue of Symmetry magazine. But I feel the need to point out that my dinner conversations rarely revolve around physics. Of course I “only” have a masters in physics – maybe if I were a full member of the physics community I would spend my evening meal discussing string theory and superconductivity instead of Lost or the recent Flogging Molly concert.

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