Institute for Quantum Information and Matter, a National Science Foundation Physics Frontiers Center

# The TV Frontier

Hello, my name is Tim Blasius and I am a physics graduate student at Caltech.  I recently appeared in a comedy bit on the TV show Conan, where I corrected Conan O’Brien’s physics.  I have been asked to share a few words describing this experience.

As with any story involving unbridled success, it begins as a tale of unnoticed, under-appreciated  and nearly unending hard work – I usually watch the show Conan during dinner with my fiancé.  Accordingly, I have seen many segments called “fan corrections” where Conan viewers submit YouTube videos explaining mistakes that they believe Conan has made on the show.  Some are nerdy and funny like the one where viewers pointed out that Conan used a red-tailed hawk call instead of a bald eagle call.  I was like a crocodile lurking in the water waiting for Conan to make a mistake in my expertise.  Then, like a woefully ignorant antelope sipping from the river Nile, Conan made a physics mistake when mocking Felix Baumgartner’s free fall, and I, being the bloodthirsty physics predator that I am, snapped the jaws of immutable truth around his naïve self.

Conan claimed to have dropped an assistant 4 inches in 6 thousandths of a second.  These numbers immediately struck me as suspect.  Being the jedi physics master that I am, I quickly set myself upon this problem – I got out a piece of paper and worked out distance traveled given a constant acceleration, \$latex x=frac{1}{2}gt^2\$.  Then I solved for time and went to Google calculator and typed the numeric values using my memorized value for \$latex g\$.  The now famous answer, is that the free fall must have taken an amount of time 24 times longer than Conan had dictated.  I had indeed won the day.

Later, while in my office at Caltech I began filming my response to Conan.  Foreseeing that my physics proof would be iron-clad, I purposefully gave him some fodder with which to make fun of me.  One of my office mates has an unusual and frankly unsettling obsession with basset hounds – he owns and proudly displays multiple basset hound calendars.  I put one of these behind me for the video and Conan happily took the bait.  I also put a picture of one of our groups “zipper” optical cavities behind me, but seeing as Conan could not comprehend what that was, he did not make any jokes about that.  My unedited video can be found here.  Conan’s edit can be found here and here:

As this video has spread around my family, friends, and campus, many have asked what my life has been like after the airing of this Conan video.  Well, fame is a powerful and corrupting force, but luckily I have not let it go to my head.  I received my star on the Hollywood walk of fame last Wednesday, and I have coordinated a team of professionals to make sure there is a single fresh red rose laying atop my star 24 hours a day.  They also make sure that no one steps on the star; however, fair young women are allowed to gently weep nearby.  In other words, not much has changed.

I hope to see you around campus (no eye contact of course),

Tim Blasius (tblasius@caltech.edu)

2017-01-13T10:06:01+00:00November 4th, 2012|News, Real science, The expert's corner|7 Comments

Funny stuff! 🙂

2. Lubos Motl November 5, 2012 at 12:10 am - Reply

Very funny. I wonder whether the clown had another special physics adviser hired to invent the debunking of your criticism, or whether it is his own invention. 😉

3. mckenzieblasius November 5, 2012 at 8:13 am - Reply

4. Shaun Maguire November 5, 2012 at 8:57 am - Reply

I just laughed audibly in Chandler. Good thing it’s an off hour — otherwise, out of shame for drawing attention to myself, I wouldn’t have been able to look at other people’s shoes for the rest of the day…! (how do you know that a Caltech student is an extrovert? They stare at YOUR shoes during conversation!)

5. Oskar Painter November 5, 2012 at 9:26 am - Reply

Tim,

You forgot to mention that the reason you eat dinner with your fiance while watching the Conan Show at 11PM is because your dictator-of-an-advisor keeps you in the lab at all hours. That was thoughtful of you. Even the Basset Hounds agree.

6. chimpanzee November 5, 2012 at 3:08 pm - Reply

“Convergent Evolution”
[ Brains colliding with TV jocks [ “bigger mouth than brain” = fireworks ]

You are paralleling the efforts of R. Feynman (invited to Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show) & Bill Nye (corrected a dingbat TV personality):

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Nye

Nye began his professional entertainment career as an actor on a local sketch comedy television show in Seattle, Almost Live!; he attempted to correct the show host’s pronunciation of “gigawatt” as “jigowatt.”[12][13] The host responded, “Who do you think you are—Bill Nye the Science Guy?” and Nye was thereafter known as such on the program.

After Surely You’re Joking became a best-seller, Feynman was invited to do an appearance on the well-known Johnny Carson show. A number of us were sitting around at dinner when the topic of the invitation came up. Feynman stated that was unfamiliar with the show and was debating whether or not he should go on. Everyone there started putting on the hard sell. Al Hibbs discussed the excellence of the show and that he had appeared on it several times discussing various space exploration missions by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Carson is a science buff, he exclaimed. Others joined in the choir of approval. I turned to Feynman and said, Watch it first. Watch it before you make any sort of commitment. He turned to me and said, That’s the first wise thing I have heard on this topic. A few days later Feynman spotted me walking across the campus and demanded I come over. What? YOU WERE RIGHT! I watched that show and it was the most idiotic program I have ever seen. I would have walked off it in the middle.

Bill Nye turned it into a career, Feynman “walked away from it” (sort of, he had a popular book targeting the masses)

7. […] How do accelerometers measure accelerations?  They measure the displacement of a test mass that is flexibly mounted to a body that experiences accelerations.  I think we can learn a lot about how accelerometers work by understanding crash test dummies.  For those confused by this reference, no, I don’t think The Crash Test Dummies, a Canadian alt. rock band from the 90’s, can teach us much about physics, although, their career did accelerate after the release of “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” and then quickly decelerated in car-wreck/one-hit-wonder fashion.  No, I am referring to the crash test dummies the automobile industry uses to test the forces of impact in car crashes.  Please refer to the image provided below.  When the car strikes the wall (decelerates), the motion of the crash test dummies (i.e. test masses) lags behind (in the sense that their forward motion doesn’t feel the deceleration as instantly as the car seats’ near-instant speed-drop to zero) and consequently there is a displacement between the back of the dummies’ heads and the seat.  The larger the acceleration is, then, the larger this displacement is for a fixed period of time and vice versa.  If one could measure this displacement, , then one could infer the acceleration (assuming one knows some calibration factors like the stiffness of the seatbelt and the masses of the dummies – for the equations involved in calculating distance traveled due to constant acceleration, see The TV Frontier). […]