Gennady — who sent in that joke about Meyerowitz, who lost $500 at poker and dropped dead — also sent me this:
The following concerns a question in a physics degree exam at the University of Copenhagen:
“Describe how to determine the height of a skyscraper with a barometer.”
One student replied:
“You tie a long piece of string to the neck of the barometer, then lower the barometer from the roof of the skyscraper to the ground. The length of the string plus the length of the barometer will equal the height of the building.”
While the answer was original, it so incensed the examiner that the student was failed immediately. The student appealed on the grounds that his answer was indisputably correct, and the university appointed an independent arbiter to decide the case.
The arbiter judged that the answer was indeed correct, but did not display any noticeable knowledge of physics. To resolve the problem it was decided to call the student in and allow him six minutes in which to provide a verbal answer which showed at least a minimal familiarity with the basic principles of physics.
For five minutes the student sat in silence, forehead creased in thought. The arbiter reminded him that time was running out, to which the student replied that he had several extremely relevant answers, but couldn’t make up his mind which to use.
On being advised to hurry up the student replied as follows:
“Firstly, you could take the barometer up to the roof of the skyscraper, drop it over the edge, and measure the time it takes to reach the ground. The height of the building can then be worked out from the formula H = 0.5g x t squared. But bad luck on the barometer.”
“Or, if the sun is shining, you could measure the height of the barometer, then set it on end and measure the length of its shadow. Then you measure the length of the skyscraper’s shadow, and thereafter it is a simple matter of proportional arithmetic to work out the height of the skyscraper.”
“But if you wanted to be highly scientific about it, you could tie a short piece of string to the barometer and swing it like a pendulum, first at ground level and then on the roof of the skyscraper. The height is worked out by the difference in the gravitational restoring force T = 2 Pi Sq Root (l / g).”
“Or, if the skyscraper has an outside emergency staircase, one could walk up the staircase and mark off the height of the skyscraper in barometer lengths and then add them up.”
“If you merely wanted to be boring and orthodox about it, of course, you could use the barometer to measure the air pressure on the roof of the skyscraper and on the ground, and convert the difference in millibars into feet to give the height of the building.”
“But since we are constantly being exhorted to exercise independence of mind and apply scientific methods, undoubtedly the best way would be to knock on the janitor’s door and say to him ‘If you would like a nice new barometer, I will give you this one if you will tell me the height of this skyscraper’.”
The student was Niels Bohr, the only Dane to win the Nobel prize for Physics.
A great Dane indeed, and I have two things to say about this. OK, three.
First, I love this story — as who could not. Thank you, Gennady.
Second, if you get to New York, see the wonderful hit play, Copenhagen, your enjoyment of which will even be heightened a notch now that you know Niels Bohr. (It will help to know Werner Heisenberg, also — read the Playbill or a review of the play before the lights go dim.)
Third, it is such a good story, it occurred to me that Gennady hadn’t written it.
Not that Gennady couldn’t have written it. Gennady is one smart cookie. But it read too polished to be something Gennady was just taking a few minutes to recall for me from his University days.
When queried on the source, Gennady shrugged (or I imagine he shrugged) and e-plied — as so many of us have in this situation — “I don’t know; someone sent it to me.”
This left me with two troubling questions. First, could I pass it on to you without crediting the author? And second — was it even true? (Not that knowing the source would make it true; but when you know the source, or the alleged source, at least you have a way to begin to assess it.)
As to the first qualm, if the author ever surfaces, I would be eager to set the record straight and give him or her credit. Even half my monthly pay for writing this column. Or a barometer.
As to the second — is the story true — well, who knows? (One of you may, which is the great thing about an interactive column.)
I raise all this because I have a suggestion. Remember my suggestion for moving e-mail postscripts before the signature (making them Pre Signatorums)? That has, you will agree, spread throughout cyberspace, transforming the culture and sparing the world untold loss and disharmony. (Prior to the Pre Signatorum, people were routinely failing to scroll down past the signature and thus missing crucial postscripts, on the order of, “PS – I’m kidding.” Or, “PS – If the 3,800 cartons can’t arrive in Akron by the 28th, then ship them to Canton instead.”)
OK, this suggestion is even bigger. Namely: whenever you get something clever that is passed on but unsigned — like Niels Bohr, above — ask the sender to ask whoever sent it to him to find out the source.
You will not, likely, find the source this way. But fairly soon, if this becomes Internetiquette, we will become more source-conscious and stop chopping them off when we forward e-mail. Those who initiate these little gems will either get the credit they deserve or, if they choose not to take credit, perhaps tell us why they have worked so hard to create something anonymously.
“So it is written, so let it be done.” — Yul Brynner
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