What (not) to Say When You Meet a Physicist

So I ran across a version of the conversation that most physicists have had over on the Shores of the Dirac Sea (and it’s a new blog, so welcome to the blogohedron!)

The other thing that has happened is that I’ve had many conversations in airplanes where I have realized that people in general do not have a clue as to what physics is all about and why it is so important for humanity. The conversations go like this:

Passenger- Nice to meet you.

DB- Nice to meet you too.

Passenger-So what do you do?

DB-I’m a physicist.

And then the person who is staring at me, if he does not decide that he is too scared, gives me one of the following lines:

1. I see. So what is that good for?
2. So you’re good at sports?
3. That was my worst subject in high school.
4. I never understood physics
5. You must be a genius.
6. I wanted to be a physicist, but I became an engineer instead.

1 is at least addressable with some blurb about basic science being important. And I get to tack on how I sorta help make GPS work.

2 has never come up. Especially if I’m playing sports. (Oh, I used to play hoops and was able to set a pretty mean pick and occasionally get off the ground for a rebound, or pretend to play football or volleyball, but good? Nah.)

The combination of 3 & 4 I’ve heard (not necessarily on airplanes) is “Oh, I hated that when I took it in high school/college” which really takes the starch out of my sails, especially because they start inching (centimetering?) away from you, as if they expected you to start teaching them physics again at any second, like the Monty Python encyclopedia salesman sketch


If I let you in you’ll teach me physics.

No, ma’am, I just want to ransack the flat.

Alright (opens door)

Mind you, I don’t know if you’ve considered the advantages of being able to solve the ballistic pendulum problem on your own.

Anyway, what’s up with the “I hated physics” response? I generally don’t denigrate anyone else’s profession when I first meet them. Well, unless they’re a lawyer.

5 is a toughie. I don’t know how to respond to “You must be smart/a genius!”

“And handsome, too.” But they don’t know me, and might not appreciate my sense of humor.
“Why yes. Yes, I am. I am incredibly smart.” As with the previous answer, it comes off as arrogant if they miss the signs that it’s humor. But if you go the opposite direction with “No, not really” it could be even worse, because if you’re not really smart and still understand physics, where are they in the grand scheme of things? It’s a lose-lose situation. And they still have that student-in-the-headlights look of someone afraid I’ll start lecturing. No, I think you have to thank them for the compliment and quickly change the subject.

6 — I’ve never met an engineer who told me that. Several of them confided that they didn’t understand why they needed to take physics, which scares the socks off me. I have to refrain from asking that subset if they worked on the Tacoma Narrows bridge.