Every year around finals, scientists from San Francisco State University gather at the house I was raised in for the Holiday Physics and Astronomy Party. My father, Roger Bland, a veteran physicist at the university, has hosted this event for the past 15 years. The party, which has achieved near-legendary status among the faculty, is a rare opportunity for brilliant scientists and their burnt-out students to mingle, have a few drinks, and 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. He clinked his wine glass with a fork and hollered, 'Now begins the Equation-Editing Shootout!'
A Microsoft Word window was projected onto the living room wall as the first contestant, a professor, took a seat at the computer desk. A man with a stopwatch said 'Go!' and the professor 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 sipped their beers and nodded in approval. 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, 'That's what I'm talkin' about!'
In past years at the Physics and Astronomy Party, I've seen Ph.D.'s get high on helium, 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.
'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, Professor Bland 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. Professor 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 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. 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 and began to hum like a spaceship. 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.
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.
Reprinted from the literary journal Brick (Summer 2005). Subscriptions: $20.50/yr. (2 issues) from Box 537, Stn Q, Toronto, ON M4T 2M5; www.brickmag.com.