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MIT physicists bask in the media limelight

Featured on late-night TV, '60 Minutes'
MIT Professor Peter Fisher celebrates with NBC's Conan O'Brien dur-ing an episode that aired in early February. Fisher, who helped the comedian spin his wedding ring on his desk for 51 seconds, is one of many MIT professors hitting the airwaves recently.
MIT Professor Peter Fisher celebrates with NBC's Conan O'Brien dur-ing an episode that aired in early February. Fisher, who helped the comedian spin his wedding ring on his desk for 51 seconds, is one of many MIT professors hitting the airwaves recently.
Photo courtesy / NBC

They say everyone gets his or her 15 minutes of fame--and that even includes MIT physicists.

From late-night TV shows and iTunes downloads to front-page stories in The New York Times, MIT physicists are getting more screen time and newsprint than some minor movie stars.

Professor Peter Fisher brought down the house during a Feb. 8 appearance on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," while physicists Max Tegmark and Edward Farhi have been featured in numerous news stories talking about the physics of teleportation. Physics lectures by Professor Walter Lewin are among the most popular downloads on iTunes, and he has been courted by late-night TV shows.

That media spotlight on physics can only help generate more enthusiasm for science among the general public, those professors say.

"I think it's always a good thing when news stories talk about real physics. There are so few compared to the number that talk about Paris Hilton and Britney Spears and so on," said Tegmark, an associate professor of physics.

At a Jan. 17 MIT event arranged by producers of the film "Jumper," Tegmark and Farhi received more applause than the film's director and star, Doug Liman and Hayden Christensen.

While many students in the crowd came to see Christensen, leading man in two "Star Wars" films, students enthusiastically cheered Tegmark and Farhi as they debunked the notion that human beings can teleport, as Christensen's character does in "Jumper."

Since then, Tegmark, a cosmologist, and Farhi, who works on quantum computing, have been quoted in articles in The New York Times, New York Post, Boston Herald, USA Today and many others.

Late Night

Professor Fisher was also recruited to lend expertise to a scientific cause. Fisher appeared on the last episode of "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" before the recent writers' strike ended. During the strike, O'Brien had been filling air time by spinning his wedding ring on his desk.

His record for longest spin was 41 seconds, and about a week before the strike ended, "Late Night" producer Frank Smiley decided to go all out to try to break the record.

He picked Fisher from a list he had compiled of about 30 physicists and mechanical engineers from several schools, including Columbia, Cornell and New York University. Smiley said he was immediately impressed with Fisher when they spoke on the phone.

"He was just so enthusiastic about it," Smiley said. "I'm glad we ended up with an MIT physicist, because it sounds good."

During Fisher's 14-minute segment, he squeezed in shout-outs to his 8.02 students, one of his postdocs, Jocelyn Monroe, and his daughter, Olympia, all of whom helped him figure out how to get the ring to spin longer.

All of those efforts paid off: With Fisher's help, O'Brien shattered his record with a time of 51 seconds, achieved by spinning the ring on a Teflon surface. Earlier attempts involving a vacuum chamber and a Vaseline-greased desk were unsuccessful.

As the show's audience and crew went wild, O'Brien started dancing around his desk and doing push-ups, and confetti and balloons fell from the ceiling. Fisher, grinning, stayed put in his chair.

"(Conan)'s really kind of a spaz. I was going to dance but I was afraid of getting hit or kicked," Fisher said.

Fisher found the experience of being on stage to be "addictive," but said the most fun part of the day was hanging out with the technical staff getting the props ready for his segment.

Smiley, the producer, agreed: "It was so much fun hanging out with him that day, trying to see how long we could get the ring to spin. That was probably the most fun I've had in the entire time I've been here."

Fisher sees his appearance as a good way to get people who aren't scientists interested in physics.

"This was really good because there was a very specific objective," he said. "Everybody could understand the problem and see how you use science to solve a problem."

Physics for all

MIT Professor Walter Lewin's lectures have long been legendary around the Institute, but now his fame has spread worldwide. Last summer, his lectures on electricity and magnetism were the number one download on Apple's iTunes U, a source of online educational content, and five of his lectures have been in Google video's top 100 listing.

After The New York Times profiled Lewin on its front page Dec. 19, the story was at the top of the Times' most e-mailed list for days. Since then, he has been interviewed by dozens of newspapers and TV shows, hired an agent, started working on a book proposal with Sara Rimer, who wrote the Times article, and has been pursued by most of the major late-night talk shows.

Lewin, who has received thousands of e-mails from students around the world since the Times story appeared, has yet to appear on any of the late-night shows because he did not want to cross picket lines during the writers' strike. He is now in negotiations with a few of the shows, and did appear on the "CBS Evening News" and the international "Riz Khan" show on Al Jazeera.

In his lectures, Lewin aims to inspire students and connect physics with their everyday lives. He explores the physics of rainbows, musical instruments, sunsets, pacemakers and particle accelerators. He attributes the popularity of his lectures to his enthusiasm, love of physics, and humor.

"My style is different. It seems to catch on even with people who have never had physics," he said.

He has three lecture series posted on MIT's OpenCourseWare, and they are among the most popular in the online educational program.

"What is fantastic is that people all over the world can now become educated in almost any field they want to," Lewin said.

Penny wise

Another MIT physicist, Pappalardo Fellow Jeff Gore, has been sought after as a commentator on an area that has no relation to his research interests: the fate of the penny.

Gore, a biophysicist who studies the evolution of cooperative behavior in yeast, has become a de facto spokesperson for the movement to abolish the penny, ever since he calculated the amount of time and money wasted each year because of pennies.

On Feb. 10, Gore appeared on "60 Minutes" to offer, as correspondent Morley Safer put it, the "nerd's-eye view" of the problem.

A few years ago, Gore read a study that estimated that pennies add an extra 2 to 2.5 seconds to every cash transaction. "That doesn't sound like that much time, but if you multiply it out, it adds up," he says.

Assuming that each transaction involves an average of three people (cashier, customer, and a customer waiting in line), Gore figured out that pennies cost the U.S. economy about $10 billion per year.

ABC's World News Tonight interviewed him for a story on the penny in 2002, and since then, he has regularly fielded interview requests. "I sort of became the 'expert' on why we should get rid of the penny," he says.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 5, 2008 (download PDF).

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