How Scientists Party

Wanna raise the roof? Try liquid nitrogen.

| January / February 2006

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!'

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