Well, I suppose that I should take Dave up on his invitation to reveal all about “the saddest missed opportunity in science popularization, ever. “ . And he was indeed very sad at the time. Almost in tears, in fact.
Our story begins almost three years ago in 2005, labelled the “International Year of Physics”. I was involved in a bmx stunt to launch this year (the Einstein Flip) and so for a while my name was in the media a lot, and if you’d been looking for a random physicist you’d have found me. A month afterwards, my office mate took a phone message for me from “the PR company for Cirque du Soleil”, which was a respectable start. I phoned them back, and spoke to someone who wanted a physicist to get involved in publicising a performance. They were a bit cagey about exactly what sort of performance it was, so I told them that I’d need to know more about what it was before I committed to getting involved. They said that they’d send me an e-mail, rather reluctantly. The e-mail finally arrived. They wanted to publicise Immodesty Blaize, a burlesque dancer. You can look her up – I’ve since heard her on the radio, talking about the serious side of her act (to do with how women are perceived in society). I think that the act itself might have involved a reverse strip-tease (putting clothes on in a sensual way, rather than taking them off). Anyway. The e-mail said that one of the major features of her act was that she could make her nipple tassles rotate in opposite directions at the same time. In order to promote her act in the newspapers, they wanted a physicist to “do some experiments” associated with the physics of this process, and then splash this story across all the papers in the UK. The papers that they mentioned were the sort of newspapers that go in for sensation and headlines that take up half the page. The e-mail finished with an offer of ten free tickets to one of her shows and an invitation to come and meet her and “get a feel for what’s going on”. I kid you not. Those were the words used. The e-mail also included a picture of Immodesty and her sidekick Walter (who was wearing a very fetching bowler hat).
So. I have talked about a lot of physics to a lot of people. I believe that you can’t dictate to people what they should and shouldn’t want to pay attention to – you have to engage them with something that genuinely interests them. Physics is never mentioned in this sort of newspaper. On one hand, it would be a great opportunity to show readers of such papers that there are female physicists out there and to demonstrate how relevant physics is to everyday life (not that I counter-rotate my nipple tassles every day, cough) On the other hand, it’s very much just cheap publicity without any real substance, very frivolous. It’s not that physics can’t be fun, but you don’t want to cheapen it.
The way the e-mail was written was a little bit odd. I still wonder whether it was a practical joke – if so, it was an exceptionally good one. On balance, I think not – I think it’s just that the person who wrote it only scraped a pass in their English exams. Immodesty’s website did have a cartoon of her with nipple tassles, and when you moved the computer mouse over them, they rotated faster and faster (and in opposite directions, of course). Male friends of mine were amazingly fascinated by this – it’s in the top ten best ways I have ever seen of keeping a bloke quiet. I spoke to the PR people on the phone again. In the end, I told them that if they wanted to do spoof physics, they should get a spoof scientist. Dave cried because he was not going to get one of the free ten tickets to her show (and I had a lot of male friends who altruistically volunteered to help me make use of those tickets).
But the whole story raises some interesting questions. Was I too shy or too stuffy? Should I have seized this opportunity to get physics and physicists some free publicity and to show that we’re not all non-human nerds in white coats? It wouldn’t really have done me any harm, although I suppose it would have been a joke among all my friends for a very long time to come. Physicists have to be approachable. Nipples are apparently very approachable. What do you think I should have done?
p.s. Something interesting that came out of this is that when you tell this story to females and you look very carefully, you can quite often see them moving their shoulders a bit, as they’re subconsciously wondering how the counter-rotating nipple feat is achieved.