Winning formula

April 12, 2012

I recently found myself chatting to Mike Duff, a string theorist at Imperial College London, at a physics dinner. As you might expect, Duff was concerned about the introduction of impact statements into the funding process. This certainly presents a challenge to the string theory community, which occupies the less applied end of the physics spectrum. I didn't have any helpful advice for him and our conversation moved on to happier topics.

Duff had recently been asked to give some expert advice on the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics to Michael Longhurst, the director of Nick Payne's Constellations at the Royal Court - a play about love in the quantum multiverse. He got a credit in the programme for his troubles and an invite to the production, which he enjoyed.

He went on to tell me that a formula from one of his papers had appeared in an episode of The Big Bang Theory, a very sweet sitcom (airing on Channel 4) about a group of four Caltech postdoc physicists (all male) who share an apartment. One of the main characters, Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons), is arrogant, self-serving, obsessive-compulsive with no social skills (he bears absolutely no resemblance to anyone you might come across in a university physics department). And yet he is strangely vulnerable and over time endears himself to the viewer, so much so that in the US, each episode attracts 16 million of them.

The work of Duff et al has well and truly entered our cultural life. That is impact, is it not?

Philip Diamond, Associate director, education and planning, Institute of Physics

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