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How Scientists Party 

What happens at a physics and astronomy party? Pickles glow. Carrots explode. Nitrous burns.

Wednesday, Jan 5 2005
Every year around finals time, scientists from San Francisco State University gather at the house I was raised in for the Holiday Physics and Astronomy Party. My father, Dr. Roger Bland, a veteran physicist at the university, has hosted this event for the past 15 years, and I've attended nearly every time. The party, which has achieved near-legend status among the faculty, is a rare opportunity for brilliant scientists and their burnt-out students to mingle, to revel in the underlying silliness of their field, to loosen their neckties after the long semester, to have a few drinks, and to light up the night with electricity and fire.

The first group of guests this year arrived at 7 p.m., tromping in the front door with a spark-generating Tesla coil, a pot of liquid nitrogen, some blowtorches, and a case of Heineken. By 8:30 the alcohol was flowing, the music was thumping, and the whole place was swarming with nerds. There was hardly room to move, yet the throngs parted gracefully for my dad as he made his way from the kitchen to the living room to announce the first event.

He clinked his wineglass with a fork and hollered, "Now begins the Equation-Editing Shootout!"

There were a few cheers, but many of the students looked puzzled. They'd heard about this annual gathering from the old-timers, about how their professors historically got drunk, set things on fire, and acted like delinquents, and they wondered if the party, like an aging rock band, had finally lost its edge.

It was certainly a slow beginning to the famous fete. A Microsoft Word window was projected onto the living room wall as the first contestant, a lady professor, took a seat at the computer desk. A man with a stopwatch said, "Go!," and she began to type. Her goal was to transcribe from a textbook a long and tedious quantum mechanical wave function -- and to do it in the least time possible. As a configuration of numbers and Greek lettering began to unfold on the wall, the grad students paid close attention. They sipped their beers and nodded in approval as the equation filled out. It took a full six minutes for the professor to finish, and when she did, there was a round of applause, and a voice shouted, "Yeah! That's what I'm talkin' about!"

I looked up at the screen, but all I saw was this:

In past years at the Physics and Astronomy Party, I've seen Ph.D.s get high on helium, vacuum-sealed oil drums collapse under the weight of our atmosphere, a giant weather balloon expand across the living room, and balloons full of propane go up in flames in the back yard, so this new event did seem a bit tame. I spotted my father hovering near a huge bowl of tamales, waved him over, and suggested that we get a new act in motion for the laymen in the crowd: "I think they're hoping to see something explode."

"Yeah," he said through a mouthful of pork and cornmeal, "I'd say it's about time for the liquid nitrogen."

From behind the Christmas tree, my father produced a vat of supersubfreezing liquid, a common light bulb, and a half-dozen safety goggles. While the next contestant in the Shootout stationed himself at the keyboard, Dr. Bland plugged in some wires, handed out the glasses, and prepared to lower the glowing bulb into the steaming pot. "This," he said, "is what happens when 3,000 Fahrenheit meets 77 Kelvin! Fire in the hole!"

The bulb dropped, and the crowd collectively held its breath -- but nothing happened. The light bulb remained lit for three seconds in the vat, then fizzled. Dr. Bland furrowed his brow like a man immersed in thought; synapses in his brain fired and sent off electrical currents this way and that to retrieve notes and textbooks from the cerebral shelves, to check the facts and figures related to the matter, to try to understand what had -- or had not -- happened.

But the semester was over, and it didn't really matter. He shrugged and grabbed a carrot from a nearby vegetable platter. I saw what was coming -- the Liquid Nitrogen Smash-Out, a foolproof, tested-and-true crowd-pleaser. He dunked the carrot for 10 seconds and then shattered it like glass over the coffee table. "Anyone else want to try?" he asked as he set the bubbling vat on the floor.

Everyone did, of course, and frozen shrapnel began to fly. When the vegetables ran out, the participants went for napkins, tamale husks, flowers from the vase, and branches from the Christmas tree. Almost everything except fingers became fodder for the smashing, and the carpet was soon littered with debris.

It's long been a tradition at the Physics and Astronomy Party to plug wires into a dill pickle and set it aglow. It's a simple trick that takes place on the back-deck table, and at this year's gathering a student was given the job of sinking the wires into either end of the vegetable. "The tough part," my father joked, "is not to get electrocuted." The young lady set down her beer, securely lodged the wires, then plugged in the cord. The pickle turned an alien yellow, began to hum like a spaceship, and started cooking from the inside out. For 30 minutes the students played this game, laughing and rearranging the wires, adding more pickles, pouring beer over them, and somehow managing not to fry one another.

In the living room, an astronomy professor took his place in the Equation-Editing Shootout, but it was nearing Saturday morning by now, and few were watching. Wine and beer had numbed senses, and even the most respectable Ph.D.s had taken to sipping liquid nitrogen and then gargling it like mouthwash. They giggled and cheered as clouds of vapor blasted from their mouths. Bystanders covered their eyes, fearing that someone's tongue would crack and fall off, but there were no such accidents.

Actually, surprisingly, no one has ever filed an official complaint over the Physics and Astronomy Party. Like an experienced rock band, my father and his colleagues know how to put on a show and keep things in order.

But one incident from four years ago deserves mention. After a long and happy night, Dad and company goaded me into dumping a gallon of liquid nitrogen onto a hot barbecue. A violent mushroom cloud of burning ash enveloped me while 20 drunken guests went diving over chairs and tumbling into the doorway for shelter. The insulated vat dropped from my hands and shattered while I fell backward. I bumped my head on the wall, landed on shards of glass, and was temporarily blinded by dust. I might have had grounds for a lawsuit, but even in America a fellow can't sue his parents and still expect a room to stay in.

This year, it had been my levelheaded father's plan to ignite rocket fuel on the back porch as the grand finale, but only one of the required ingredients -- pressurized nitrous oxide purchased from a novelty shop in the Castro -- had been located. "We won't be going to the moon tonight," my father apologized to the half-dozen remaining students, "but this stuff will still burn." He lit up a blowtorch while a student opened an N2O cartridge and filled a large red balloon with the gas. One student forced the nitrous oxide through a length of PVC piping while another ignited the gas on its way out the opposite end. It was true, nobody went to the moon; but the gas flared brilliantly like a miniature space shuttle for several seconds.

"This guy's so rad," a student said quietly to me. "He's such a cool professor."

"I know," I told him. "He's my dad." (Alastair Bland)

Name That Name

I've got a very odd name, one that requires me to explain it a lot, to spell it aloud for someone almost daily, and to ponder what it means all the time. Unlike the boy named Sue of country music fame, I'm not alone. I mean, I am alone, in the sense that no one else I know of is named Hiya, but I grew up with other kids in my situation, kids named Rainbow, and Shandrika, and Coriander. Having long harbored a suspicion that we were, collectively, somehow better than the Johns and Jennies of the world, I was pretty stoked when Uma and Keanu and Moon Unit came along in the 1980s as fabulous affirmations. Now, of course, the name Harmony connotes über-hipness and creativity, but I remember when it meant that you were poor and dirty and might have head lice. I realized the Bay Area must be packed with oddly named people, now adults. I tracked some of them down, to see whether they'd wound up creative or infested.

"They probably didn't want to give me a 'jive' name," figures Orion Letizi, when I ask him what his parents were thinking. Most people, it turns out, either think his name is O'Ryan, or hear him saying, "Uh, Ryan." "Like maybe I've forgotten my own fucking name," he says, eyes wide in disbelief.

We talk about "trauma food" (carob-chip cookies for him, orange juice in Jell-O for me) and trot out long-repressed stories about geodesic domes and such. We mock freely until we practically choke on our organic cocktails. "They were probably trying to invest me with some kind of universe energy BS," Orion says, and we erupt into shrieking laughter again, momentarily unaware of the irony inherent in poking fun at "universe energy" while dining in a vegan restaurant. Despite his conflicted feelings, Letizi insists, "I'm not going to change my name. It's sort of like an attribute of yourself, like your eye color or your ethnicity."

Trismegista Taylor, not a vegan, is tolerant and sweet and looks for the good in people, even the ones who can't understand her name. When she meets someone for the first time, she says, "It's always the interesting people who are actually listening. I have a screening process with my name." And even though she has a quasi-normal nickname -- Tristy -- she often has to spell it out. And there's a twist: "People think it's Christy, and I say, 'No, with a "T."' And they go, 'Yeah, ChrisTEE.'"

Still, Taylor says she loves her name and recounts a pivotal moment in junior high to explain why. Her class had a substitute teacher, and rather than stumble over her name, the teacher recognized that it must have been borrowed from the first known alchemist, Hermes Trismegistus, and said so. "Every eye swiveled to look at me," Taylor remembers clearly, and at that moment, she says, she knew that she was different, and that different was not automatically bad. "That was the beginning, when I knew what alchemy was, and no other 14-year-olds did."

Besides, Taylor says, "There's big mojo in a name."

I know exactly what she means.

The first person who came to mind for a story on the oddly named kids from the left coast was Sugar Magnolia Caballero, sister of Heavenly Spice Edwards. Do the math: These are two sisters named Sugar and Spice. Even among my people, this is extreme.

Sitting down with Caballero, I am immediately struck by the power in her tiny person. Did it come from enduring lecherous types asking if they could "get a lick of that" ever since she was a preteen? "I hate it. It's really irritating," she sighs, but her stories have me howling with laughter inside of a minute.

"The fact that all the hicks hated it made me like it," she says of her high school years in forward-thinking Healdsburg. But the name has had serious ramifications, too; among other things, she theorizes, it's affected her ideas about femininity, using Marilyn Monroe's Sugar Kane in Some Like It Hot as an analogue. It's heavy stuff, and she says her father acknowledges he may not have thought matters entirely through when he named her: "I asked my dad, and he said, 'You were just so little and innocent.'"

Why, then, I ask, didn't she change it? She articulates something I had been trying to say, but couldn't, with remarkable concision: "I guess I felt like my name being different was symbolic of my life being different." That may not sound deep to you, Jeff, but I'm pretty sure everyone from Uma and Keanu to all the people I couldn't get ahold of for this story -- Zip, Five, Trane, Joyful, Silver, and Che -- can relate. Our strange names may have subjected us to years of offhand abuse, but they've also made us tough, resilient. Somehow, it seems, they gave us universe energy. (Hiya Swanhuyser)

About The Author

John Mecklin


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