A Sweeping Success

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research, now in all-pdf form. Get a subscription now for only $25 a year!

by Marc Abrahams, AIR staff

In the film Good Will Hunting, a college janitor came to be recognized as a genius. Something vaguely -- very vaguely -- akin to that happened during the 2005 Ig week.

For some time now, Roy Glauber has been a vital participant in the annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony. By spontaneous tradition, the Ig audience throws paper airplanes at the stage during the entire ceremony (and the people on stage waft some of them right back). The airplanes accumulate so rapidly that it is necessary to have two people spend the entire ceremony sweeping them off. Roy, a Harvard physics professor, has nobly, stylishly, and vigorously swept the stage for ten long years. Like Gandhi, Roy patiently pursued humble tasks in the long years before the world at large came to appreciate his greatness. Two days before the 2005 Ig Nobel Ceremony came the news: Roy Glauber has been awarded a Nobel Prize in physics.

The process, indeed the physics, of sweeping is now deeply ingrained in Roy’s psyche. That day, a  reporter asked him: “This is your first day as a Nobel Prize-winner. How is it?”

Roy’s reply: “Well, it’s like being swept up into the vortex of a bit of a tornado. It’s not quite that chaotic, but it’s every bit as vigorous.” (You can listen to a recording of that entire interview by going to the Nobel Foundation’s web site.)

In substance, of course, it is no surprise at all that Roy won a Nobel Prize. At Los Alamos in 1940s, the teenage Roy Glauber -- interrupting his formal college studies -- was one of the youngest physicists in the atomic bomb development team. And his career went nowhere but up after that. In the 1960s he led physicists to a new, richer understanding of how the quantum theory applies to light.

During the 1998 Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, we drew on Roy’s renowned expertise with quantum theory. He delivered a moving testimonial about that year’s winner of the Ig Nobel Physics Prize: Dr. Deepak Chopra, author of the book Quantum Healing. Dr. Chopra earned the Ig “for his unique interpretation of quantum physics as it applies to life, liberty, and the pursuit of economic happiness.”

Here is the complete text of then-future Nobel Physics Laureate Roy Glauber’s tribute to 1998 Ig Nobel Prize-winner Deepak Chopra:

“There is not much that I need to tell you about relativistic quantum mechanics. There is not much I can tell you about relativistic quantum mechanics. Its achievements in the world of atoms and particles have been great. Its successes, on the other hand, in the world of psychiatry and emotional well-being have been few. And it is certainly not been known for them, particularly. Not, that is, until the recent work of tonight’s honoree. Success, of course, is a matter of definition. Relativity and quantum mechanics applied to personal well-being and psychiatry may or may not  have  done  good, but they have certainly done well. Thank you.”

The 2005 Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony featured a special tribute to Roy Glauber. You can see it -- as part of the video of the 2005 Ig Nobel Ceremony -- at YouTube. [Ed. note: The tribute begins at 16 minutes into the ceremony.] (Special thanks to Bruce Petschek of Seven Generations Video for lovingly preparing that video tribute.)

At the 2005 Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, participants watch a video tribute to Roy Glauber, who two days before was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics. Glauber swept paper airplanes at each of the previous ten Ig Nobel Prize Ceremonies.

[Ed. note: Dr. Glauber attended the Ig Nobel Awards just last week, as he does every year. That makes 21 years of sweeping service.] 

This article is republished with permission from the November-December 2005 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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