Surely I'm Joking!: A Physicist's Personal Essays
by Tatsuo Tabata
Copyright © 1999-2000 by Tatsuo Tabata
Contents of This Page
Go to all the Contents of "Surely I'm Joking!"
1. The Stolen Joke
The Third International Workshop on Electron and Photon Transport Theory (IWEPT/3) was held in Indianapolis from August 8 to 12, 1999. I was the first speaker in the afternoon session on Tuesday, August 10. The morning session ended much behind the schedule because of heated discussion, and many participants did not yet come back from lunch even at the postponed start time. I was waiting for chairperson's opening words putting the draft of my talk on the speaker's table. Then John Garth came there, and looked at the draft. He murmured in a voice not so low, "'Good afternoon, a lady and gentlemen!' Interesting!" The chairperson, Alex Bielajew, heard it and started the session by "Good afternoon, a lady and gentlemen!"
Thus I was forced to wait for another chance of saying a joke after my presentation. Vadim Moskvin, the last speaker of the same session, was a victim. When the discussion on his talk seemed to have come to an end, I raised my hand and said, "I am one of co-authors, but my opinion is different from yours at one point (laughter). You talked about the down-stream boundary. I think it should be the incident surface." Vadim said, "There is only one boundary." I said, "Oh, yes! It is about semi-infinite medium. So there is only a single surface or boundary. Only your word was wrong. Our opinions are the same!" I shook hands with Vadim.
In the lunch time next day, I dedicated the following words to Colleen DesRosiers, the single lady participant, and Vadim: "We had only one mysterious lady in our meeting just as Vadim had a single, mysterious, down-stream boundary in his semi-infinite medium."
Some of other participants did not fail to give their good jokes, among which Indra Das's joke that Catholic ladies welcomed the possible discovery of neutrino mass was one of the finest. Some of the participants, including myself, did not catch his joke. I learned from him only at the dinnertime that "Mass" meant Christian religious ceremony. I spent the weekend days after the workshop at Indra's house in Philadelphia and read Graham Green's Twenty-One Stories for a few hours. In the fourth story entitled "The Hint of an Explanation," I found a passage, "When I was a child they taught me to serve at Mass," spoken by a Roman Catholic. This could be the hint of understanding Indra's joke, if I did not ask him an explanation.
Finally it is to be noted that the name of the workshop was misprinted on the participants' nametag as "Third International Workshop on Electron and Photon Transport Therapy." Surely there were many talks on the treatment planning of electron- and photon-beam therapy. "Theory" and "Therapy" have similar word faces. Therefore, I suppose that only a very few persons found this misprint by themselves. Did you find it?
(18 Aug 1999)
Note added later
On August 20, I received an e-mail message from Alex, which included the following passage (cited by his permission):
I didn't think that Alex was an evil-minded thief of the joke, but imagined that his stealing of the joke was itself a kind of joke. However, the fact was much more stranger than my complex imagination.
2. "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Tabata!"
In the evening of Friday, November 14, 1997, I attended the 3rd Meeting of Sumire-Kai (Violet Association), which was established for old boys and girls who finished Kindai (Violet Hill) Senior High School in Kanazawa and live in Kanto (East) District. The high school had the general course for ten years only, and then became Kanazawa Senior High School of Commerce (it had been Kanazawa Middle School of Commerce until just after Japan's defeat in the 2nd Wold War). The meeting was held in Shinjuku, and we had two former teachers. One of them was Ms. Yoko Sasaki, a mathematics teacher, who taught us Analysis I. She said to me "Why are you here? You don't live in Kanto, do you?" I answered, "No, I don't, but I came a long way from Kansai (West) just to see you, Sasaki-sensei." ("Sensei" is a Japanese word corresponding to Mr. or Ms., but used only for teachers and Diet members.) Then she said, "Tabata-san rashii jodan yu-ga yane!" (something close to "Surely you're joking, Mr. Tabata!" in Kanazawa dialect).
Sasaki-sensei is older than I only by ten years. So she was very young when we attended her lessons. During the summer vacation of the first-grade year, a friend of mine, Kajita-kun ("kun" means Mr. and is used only for friends, colleagues or younger male persons including children), wished to call at her house to ask her about matrices and determinants, though these were not the topics she taught us; and I went with him. She had a baby in her arms when we visited her. Sasaki-sensei remembered all about it. I also asked her if she remembered this: Standing beside me during one of examinations, she murmured, "Nani shitoru gaine!" ("What a foolish thing you are doing!"). When we learned the absolute-value symbols, I was absent from school owing to a cold. So I was slow to understand that the vertical lines in some of hand-written equations in the first question were those symbols, and read one of the equations, for example, as y=1x-11 instead of y=lx-1l. The question requested us to draw the graphs of the equations. Wondering why she wrote 1x for x and put such a strangely large number as 11, I drew a graph of the line passing through the points (0, -11) and (11, 0). However, the teacher's murmur made me notice my misreading, and I was able to correct my answer just in time. She did not remember this.
In the bullet train to Tokyo, I read part of "A Mathematician's Apology" written by G. H. Hardy (Cambridge University Press, first published in 1940). In section 12, he gives two examples of "real" mathematical theorems, "theorems every mathematician will admit to be first-rate." One of them is Pythagoras's proof of the "irrationality" of the square root of 2, which is argued by reductio ad absurdum. This is just one of the things Sasaki-sensei taught us. I wished to tell her about it, and said, "You taught me about the proof of the irrationality of . . ." Then she said, "Tabata-san, muzukashii hanashi sentoite tai" ("Please don't talk about a difficult topic"). She might have been afraid that I would point out some mistake in her old lecture. I did not intend to do so, but her words disrupted the talk about my latest reading.
"Vicky," one of our most brilliant classmates, was present at the meeting, too. She looked quite fine in spite of the serious illness from which she suffered some years ago, and told us that she had joined a tour to Spain and Portugal with her husband last month. I said to her, "Do you remember that you taught me about a problem of Analysis I?" "Yes, I learned Analysis I from Sasaki-sensei." "I mean that YOU taught ME." "No, I don't remember it." "Because of my absence for a few days, I didn't know how to deal with the inequality that included the absolute-value symbols. I asked about it not to you but to Tajima-kun at the next seat. He didn't know about it either, and asked you in front of us. Then you turned to us and told us how to solve such a problem. Your explanation was very clear and understandable; it might have been clearer than Sasaki-sensei's." "You remember such an old thing quite in detail, don't you?"
I handed Vicky a leaflet, "Vicky (A Novella)," which I wrote some months before. She said, "Recollections in English? I'll read it using a dictionary." Six among seven of our classmates who attended the meeting walked to the hotel in Shinjuku where I stayed, and had a party after party at a coffee shop there. When they were going to leave the hotel by two taxis, Vicky said to me, "Thank you for everything today," though I didn't think to have done much to her. When she took seat in the taxi, the bottom of her long crimson coat opened widely and one of her beautiful and young-looking legs peeped out. It was a good evening, but returning here, I had caught a cold and stayed home for two days.
(19 Nov 1997, adapted 23 Sep 1999)
3. "Finding Errors Is Your Hobby, Dr. Tabata!"
An international symposium to celebrate the jubilee of the meson theory was held in Kyoto in 1985. At a coffee break of the symposium, I said to Professor Satio Hayakawa of Nagoya University, "In your article in 'The Birth of Particle Physics' edited by Brown and Hoddeson, you wrote that there were meetings on meson theory during the wartime Japan and that they had the name 'illusion meetings,' which was a pun on the Japanese word for meson. What was the name in Japanese?" He answered, "It was Mehsoh-kai." I said, "I thought so, but it is a pun on the English word 'meson,' not the pun on the Japanese word for meson."
The above conversation was made in Japanese. Hayakawa interpreted it into English for Professor Laurie Brown of Northwestern University. The latter, to whom I had sent a long letter to indicate many errors in his translation (with his student R. Yoshida) of Hideki Yukawa's "Tabibito (Traveler)",* said to me, "Finding errors is your hobby, Dr. Tabata!"
In this section I am collecting my letters sent to overseas authors to tell about their errors, i.e., my hobby letters. In citing them, some modifications are made in an effort to improve English.
* A related story is given in section 5 of "What Little I Can Talk about Feynman."
(24 Mar 2000)
3.1. To Professor Hendrik Casimir
December 14, 1984
Dear Professor Casimir,
I have very much enjoyed reading your book entitled "Haphazard Reality."
I would like to call your attention to a minor error in the book. The date of the Japanese capitulation (lines 5-6 on page 218) is not 8 August 1945 but 15 August 1945, though the former is also a memorable day because of the dropping of the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki.* In Japan we commemorate 15 August, wishing eternal peace of the world, so that it is one of the most important day of the year to us.
*Note: This was my stupid error. See the next letter.
February 2, 1985
Dear Professor Casimir,
Thank you very much for your kind reply of January 5. I liked your interesting errata and much better the passage:
I have contributed a short story to the newspaper, "Nikkan Hoshasen (The Daily Radiation)", issued in mimeographed copies by the labor-union of our institute, Radiation Center of Osaka Prefecture. The story told why I wrote you and how I liked your reply, and was accompanied by the Japanese translation of your letter along with my notes giving information necessary to understand your errata. Thus a number of people working in our institute appreciated your letter.
I am ashamed to say that my previous letter of several lines only had an serious error. The date of dropping of the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki was not 8 August but 9 August 1945. I became aware of this error just when I posted the letter. The eighth day of the month is associated with a gross folly of Japan, Pearl Harbor attack, on 8 December 1941.
(Adapted 5 Apr 2000)
3.2. The English Edition of Yukawa's "Tabibito"
March 10, 1985
Dear Professor Brown,
I enjoyed reading H. Yukawa's "Tabibito (The Traveller)" translated by you and R. Yoshida. I think that the translation is felicitous and that it conveys Yukawa's style of writing very well.
I found however a number of minor errors in the book. I enclose errata here, wishing that these would be useful for revised printing of the book. While many of the entries in the errata are typographical errors, those marked with the symbol * are plainly translators' errors. The Japanese edition of "Tabibito" I consulted was the one in "Collection of H. Yukawa's Essays Selected by the Author," Vol. 5 (Asahi Shimbun, 1971).
Most of the errors are in Japanese proper nouns. I was able to find many errors of this kind because a native Japanese-speaker can be very sensitive to such errors. The fact that most of Chinese characters have plural pronunciations makes it difficult to read Japanese proper nouns correctly.
When I first read "Tabibito" in Asahi Shimbun, I was a graduate student of Kyoto University. Just before its serial publication, I had attended Yukawa's undergraduate course on quantum mechanics. While I have been working in the field of experimental radiation physics, I admire Yukawa's pioneering work on theoretical particle physics, and respect also his personality and endeavor after nuclear disarmament. I welcome heartily the publication of your translation of "Tabibito."
(Note in citing here: Only some entries from a long list are shown below.)
(Adapted 1 June 2000)
3.3. The German Edition of Yukawa's "Tabibito"
July 26, 1986
Dear Professor Fischer,
(Note in citing here: Only some entries from a long list are shown below.)
# Mr. Minoru Yata kindly wrote me, "There seems to be the use of "nicht" for putting emphasis on the tone of an exclamatory sentence without the meaning of negation," and gave the following example from the song "O'Tannennbaum": "Wie oft hat nicht zur Weihnachtzeit, ein Baum von dir mich hoch-erfreut!" (6 Apr 2003)
(Adapted 24 June 2000)
3.4. To Dr. Alwyn McKay
August 8, 1986
Dear Dr. McKay,
Last year I enjoyed reading your book, "The Making of the Atomic Age." You described in your book a Japanese atom-bomb project during the Second World War. I do not think that this historical fact weakens Japanese people's appeal for a total ban and elimination of nuclear weapons, but think that it teaches us the dangerous relation of science and military technology.
An article entitled "Scooping a Visionary Japanese Atom-Bomb" appeared in the 9-August-1985 issue of a Japanese popular journal "Shukan Posuto (The Weekly Post)." I'm enclosing its photocopy, wishing that you find a Japanese person for helping you to read it. The author is Shin-ichi Sano, a journalist, who made an interview with Professor Masahiro Ishida at Research Reactor Institute, Kyoto University, to ask about the "F project." The article does not reveal about the project itself more than the article published in Science [Vol. 199, p. 152 (1978)] and cited by you. Actually the project was of small scale, and did not make any advance. However, we, Japanese scientists of the present generation, should learn much from the presence of the project, not to participate in the development of weapons again.
The survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have an intense desire that there should never be another Hiroshima and Nagasaki anywhere on earth. People all over the world should now have the same desire for the very survival of the whole of humanity.
I found two minor errors in your book. One is on page 111; the name of the nuclear physicist Bunsabe Arakatsu should read Bunsaku Arakatsu. This is not your own error but the error taken over from the article in Science mentioned above. I was a student of Professor Emeritus Kiichi Kimura, who was an assistant professor under Professor Arakatsu and whose name appears in the Shukan Posuto article.
The other error is on page 146. You cited the article in Science as written by C. Weiner. However, the author is Deborah Shapley. In her article she describes about the use of materials lent to Science by Herbert F. York, Jr. and Charles Weiner. This might have lead to the error.
Wishing your happy life and the eternal peace of the world,
(Adapted 24 Mar 2000)
3.5. In Search of Errors
January 12, 1987
Dear Mr. Gribbin,
I have just begun to read your book, "In Search of the Big Bang." In "Acknowledgments" of the book, you wrote that you would welcome the readers to spot errors. So I have read your descriptions on Japanese physicists first, and have found the followings to write you:
(1) In line 6 on page 299, Shin'ichiro Tomonaga's affiliation is written as Tokyo University. However, it is better to write as "the Tokyo University of Education." It is true that Tomonaga was professor at the Institute for Nuclear Study, the University of Tokyo, when he received Nobel Prize, but the post was a part-time one for three years from 1964. His permanent post was at the Tokyo University of Education (formerly the Tokyo University of Literature and Science; presently Tsukuba University), where he worked from 1940 to l969 ["Collection of Shin'ichiro Tomonaga's Writings" (in Japanese) (Misuzu Shobo, Tokyo 1985) Suppl. Vol. 3, p. 345].
(2) In line 10 from bottom on page 313, the two theorists Yoichiro Nambu and M. Y. Han are referred to as Japanese. However, Han is not Japanese but Korean. I think that this error was overtaken from A. Pickering's "Constructing Quarks." L. M. Brown pointed out the same error in his review of that book [Science Vol. 228, p. 857 (1985)].
(3) The title of the above Pickering's book is misprinted as "Construction Quarks" in line 3 on page 401.
(Adapted 14 May 2000)
3.6. Feynman not in Tokyo but in Kyoto
February 20, 1989
Dear Mr. Leighton,
I would appreciate receiving an audio-casette tape, "Richard Feynman: Safe-cracker Suite." A cheek for $12 is enclosed; the extra amount of 2$ is for an estimated foreign postage.1
In the story "I Just Shook His Hand, Can You Believe It?" of the book "What Do You Care What Other People Think?" it is written that Feynman was the honorary chairman of one session of a conference held in Tokyo in the summer of 1986. Was it not Kyoto International Symposium, the Jubilee of the Meson Theory, held in Kyoto from August 15 to 17, 1985?
I attended that symposium and saw Feynman serving as a chairman. The first speaker of the session chaired by him was Minoru Kobayasi, Professor Emeritus at Kyoto University. Professor Kobayasi read a paper entitled "The Birth of Yukawa Theory" in Japanese, and an English translation was read by a young physicist paragraph by paragraph. So Professor Kobayasi must have used up his time before coming to the end of his paper to annoy Feynman as told in the story, though I do not remember this point surely.
During a coffee break of the symposium, a friend of mine talked with Feynman on his book, "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" At that time I had not read the book yet, so that I missed a good chance of talking with Feynman!2
Notes added later:
(Adapted 29 Apr 2000)
4. "Why Is This Joke Funny?"
James Livingston's well written book on magnets1 included the following passage:
Most of those who live outside North America possibly do not know
who Rush Limbaugh is. If he wishes to make his book to be read world over,
therefore, Livingston should not have referred to Rush Limbaugh here. However,
I happened to know this name. To explain the reason for this, I have to tell a
story of some length.
I did not understand why this can be a joke, but there was a note attached to this joke:
Therefore, it was unnecessary for me to be ashamed of being unable
to appreciate the joke. I sent Dave an e-mail message by writing, "As you
commented, I don't appreciate the joke of Rush Limbaugh and his chauffeur.
Can you explain why it's funny? I know that it's silly to ask the explanation
of a joke, but if I learn one thing more, I should be happier."
Owing to Dave's kind reply, I was able to enjoy Livingston's passage cited at the top of this essay. This experience teaches us: Don't be afraid of asking the explanation of the joke when you don't understand it! By doing so, you will surely learn something more and be happier than before.
(24 Aug 2000; Dave Jette's joke and e-mail reply have been cited by his permission.)