Talk Like a Physicist Day

Well, drat. I missed Talk Like a Physicist Day yesterday. Luckily, I talk like a physicist every day! The Talk Like a Physicist site doesn’t actually have that many good examples; luckily, Chad Orzel is here to help. He’s collecting examples of physicist speak in the comments.

Ones that I use on a non-zero basis:

Canonical. The usual example of something or answer to a problem. “The canonical example of talking like a physicist is to use the word ‘canonical’.”

Orthogonal. Two or more things that are mutually exclusive or don’t affect each other — in effect, are at right-angles to each other. “In his case, the effort expended on a job and the outcome are orthogonal.”

Non-trivial. There are tough problems. There are difficult problems. Then there are non-trivial problems: problems so hard that you’re not even sure how to begin. “It turns out that finding the lowest-price airline ticket is a non-trivial exercise.”

High order. When someone’s reaction is all out of proportion to what caused the reaction. Usually used when someone becomes very excited or very angry. “All I did was make a little joke about his tie and he went high order.”

Nonlinear. See high order.

Not even wrong. Someone is making an argument using assumptions that are known to be wrong, or are making an argument that can’t be falsified. Courtesy Wolfgang Pauli. “Wait, he’s assuming Ron Paul can still win the Republican nomination? That’s not even wrong.”

Varies inversely with. As one quantity increases, another decreases. “When presenting a paper, a physicist’s credibility varies inversely with how well-dressed he or she is.”

Inversely proportional to. See varies inversely with.

For very small values of. This one, I’m afraid, I can best explain by example. “So there are four of us going to dinner.” “Three.” “Okay, so there are four of us for very small values of four.”

In future lessons we’ll teach you how to dress like a physicist.

6 thoughts on “Talk Like a Physicist Day

  1. Um … I say some of that stuff. Regularly.

    Lord knows that I’m an engineer-turned-manager, not a physicist.

    I think I’m gonna have a fit of existential angst now …

  2. Stephen, You’ve left out ‘order of magnitude’ which is an excellent choice for talking like a physicist.

    For very specific physicists you can also switch ‘which’ and ‘that’ in a sentence then switch them back.

    For theorists I’ve found the use of the phrase ‘monte carlo’ seems to spring up quite a lot more than is necessarily warranted, too.

    Oh, but it has been years now since I’ve had the opportunity to socialize with physicists. 🙂


  3. Geof: Several people in Chad Orzel’s comments pointed out that a lot of these are used in general geekdom, never mind other scientific disciplines. Don’t get too existential on me. If it makes you feel better, thanks to my job I now speak fluent physicist and engineer, and can tell the difference. You’re definintely enginner.

    Seth: This is the sound of me slapping my forehead because I forgot “order of magnitude”.

  4. I feel obliged to mention that mutually exclusive quantities or conditions would, if represented algebraically, have a negative inner product instead of a zero inner product, and thus not be orthogonal.

    I try to keep my metaphorical use of orthogonal to quantities which are independent of each other.

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