Thursday, May 24, 2012

Beer and Quantum Physics

What does beer have to do with quantum physics? At first glance, not much. Unless of course you attended one of the venues that participated in the “Science on the Bar” (מדע על הבר) event in Tel Aviv last month.   It was a feat whereby dozens of Tel Aviv bars hosted scientists from the Weisman Institute that talked about the latest and greatest in science.

 'Science on the Bar' event poster
Tel Aviv is known as “the city that never stops” (עיר ללא הפסקה). Big part of this bustling city are its hundreds of bars, which create a special atmosphere blending East and West. Alongside its world class restaurants, the Tel Aviv bars help fuel the city buzz literally every night of the week.

The Weizmann Institute of Science is a world leading research institute and graduate school with focus on areas such as mathematics, computer science, physics, and life sciences.  While it isn’t as big as some of the other Israeli universities, the Weizmann Institute is world renown for the quality of its research and its contributions to the advance of science.

I heard about the “Science on the Bar” event and got really intrigued. Combining the hedonistic scene of Tel Aviv bars with the pristine scientific atmosphere of the Weizmann Institute was bound to be interesting. Watching an ivy tower scientist pitching to a group of semi-drunk party goers is a sight to behold.

I logged onto the event website several weeks before the target April 30th date, and studied the proposed “lectures”.  To my surprise there were quite a few lectures (55 actually) scheduled to take place during the Science on the Bar night.  I am not much of a life sciences person, so I checked those off the list. Math and Computer Science are areas I spent a lot of time on during my own studies, so that pretty much left Physics as my leading candidate.

I must confess that my knowledge of physics is quite limited. Somehow I got “stuck” with Newtonian physics and never really crossed the bridge into modern physics. Sure, I picked up a few “physics phrases” here and there, and can engage in name dropping like the “Uncertainty Principle”, without really knowing what it means…  I figured it is time to learn a bit more about Quantum Physics, and that the 'Science on the Bar' would be a great step in that direction.

After scanning the list of physics talks, I highlighted a few that looked interesting. My first choice was a lecture by Dr. Barak Dayan titled “from the theory of relativity to quantum optics”. I figured it will give me a broad brush of everything I needed to know about modern physics. I also noted a few other talks, just in case.

When the designated evening arrived, I headed down to Tel Aviv in my car. The biggest challenge in driving to Tel Aviv isn’t navigating around, or avoiding impatient drivers who are upset because you tried to use “their lane”. The biggest challenge is – finding a parking space. Fortunately, after circling a few blocks I managed to squeeze the car into an empty parking spot. Victory was mine, or so I thought.

I headed confidently towards the OzenBar (אזןבר) where the lecture was supposed to take place. It was a few minutes before 8:30pm and I thought I had plenty of time to spare. After all, performances in Israel never start on time. As I got closer to the bar, I noticed a long line of people standing at the door. Surely they weren’t there for the same reason as I was? Alas they were!  To my surprise, the bar was overcrowded with “partygoers” eager to quench their thirst for physics.

After a couple of minutes wait, a bar employees made the announcement: “for all of you standing in line, if you don’t have reservations, we may not be able to seat you”. Making reservations to a bar in order to listen to physics talk? He’s got to be kidding, I thought. But he wasn't.

Chances of getting in looked slim and I decided to move to plan B. A quick glance on the lectures list, and an assessment of how far away was each bar lead to the following option: a lecture titled “Quantum Theory on a glass of beer”, given by Prof. Dan Shachar at the Convent (מנזר) bar. It was already after 8:30pm and figured my only chance was to make a dash for it.

I half run, half walked to the Convent bar and got there in less than 15min. As I drew closer, I noticed to my horror that a large group of people was already gathered around the bar entrance. “That’s it, I am doomed to remain Quantum ignorant”, I thought. But the Convent bar was certainly ready to handle all the potential converts. They placed a loud speaker outside, and had Prof Shachar stand on an elevated area, so he can be seen and heard not just by the people inside the bar, but also by the onlookers outside.

I joined the other people who gathered to hear the sermon, and that most of them were youngsters in their mid/late 20’s. Everybody paid close attention, and the only interruptions came from vehicles on the nearby streets. Prof. Shachar did a fine job. He introduced some of the basic concepts of Quantum Theory, illustrating them with everyday examples. He even managed to associate quantum theory with the glass of beer he was holding. Who would have thought that Beer and Quantum Theory do mix?

No, I am no expert in Quantum Physics after this one talk. But I did pick up a few new insights, and definitely added to my list of “name dropping”. Good old’ Newton is quickly becoming history.

I was curious whether the idea of mixing renowned researchers with everyday pub goers was unique to Tel Aviv. Google search didn’t yield anything similar on that scale. But aside from the sense of local pride, it was invigorating to see that so many young people are genuinely interested in science. This is good news in a world where instant gratification and video games threaten to slow down the human quest for knowledge.

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  1. Well-written and entertaining as always, Baruch! I do enjoy your blogs. Would love to someday hit the bars of Tel Aviv with you. Ah precious time, there is so little of it...