Explaining quantum mechanics to girls in bars


It’s a common problem, but one not often discussed by science blogs… A good-looking and talented scientist/blogger is in a bar, about to order a drink. It’s taking some time to get served so said blogger starts a conversation with a girl at the bar.

They make eye-contact, she smiles, they make a subtle connection until, ever so delicately, they step into the minefield as she asks, “so what do you do?”.

At this point, the scientist/blogger knows he can lose this most fragile shard of an opportunity if he doesn’t tread carefully.  Option one is to invent an exotic career; taxidermy is pretty unusual, and he may be able to work in a chat up line about stuffing Castor canadensis.

The big problem with invented careers is the potential for a specific skill to be tested (whether it’s as a concert pianist or Hollywood stuntman). So, deciding to take the honest path, he replies;

I’m a scientist…

  • Oh really? What kind of Scientist?


  • Really? Wow (pause) What sort of thing specifically?

Here’s the trap of the follow-up question. It doesn’t just apply to girls in bars, but any time a scientist meets anybody. People are genuinely interested in what you do, but how to sum up a project at the cutting edge of research to someone you meet on a bus?

Whether your aim is just to explain science or make closer acquaintances, it’s vital to stimulate that initial interest inherent in the question.

So, you could talk about far-from equilibrium pattern formation on chemically functionalised silicon surfaces, or try to pick something more generally interesting from your field.

In social situations, realistically it’s only possible or necessary to get one new idea across. In physics at the quantum scale, there are ideas so weird that they kept Einstein awake at night, so it’s impossible to explain it all. From the point of view of spreading science, then all too often scientists are crap at explaining what they do simply because they throw in far too much detail.

From a social standpoint, show enthusiasm for the subject, engage with the “audience”, buy a beer, and let the conversation move on.


Apologies for the very delayed post today- I was travelling back from Barcelona. Thanks to @bernardamus for the phrase, “shards of opportunities”.

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9 Comments on “Explaining quantum mechanics to girls in bars”

  1. Bernardamus Says:

    Shards of hilarious nano-humor!
    Apart from flirting with chicks using quantum mechanics (HARD!) more frequently you simply want to SHARE with some of your closer friends some notions of what you do as a nanoscientist, just like any other human being. If you had to tell them the truth (i.e., surface effects of metastable phases, quantum tunneling through a metal tip, bla bla), let’s be honest they would all end up bored in less than 2 minutes. So generally as a physicist you end up acting a show story-telling some philosophical quantum-bullshit to please somehow your audience and to look less nerd as possible. When I do that I feel completely depressed because I perceive that GAP and incapability to get some decent emotional feedback about what I am supposed to do in my lifetime job.
    The chick seduced by the mysterious scientist/blogger would expect him to explain her the movie “What the Bleep Do We Know!?” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_the_Bleep_Do_We_Know!%3F) to unveil her the secret connections between spiritual emotions, neuronal circuits & quantum physics. Let’s be honest! this is not really our field of knowledge, I am sorry.
    So if you had to be honest to yourself and explain frankly to your friends what you do for a living, how can you avoid feeling trapped in a vacuum bubble?

  2. nxcng Says:

    It’s in instances like this which you can venture outside of the normal constraints of specifc research.
    Talk about the reason why you are a scientist and not just the science you do. Talk about the future you dream of, even if it is far off..

    People might not be interested in the fact that surfaces are being functionalized for strange electrical and physical / chemical properties for applications and how such and such will become better… but they may be interested in hypothetical “eventual consequences” of certain endeavors. Some scientists try to be humble by keeping their conversation within “bounds”… just drop the damn joke and get to the point… the world is mysterious as hell and scientists believe that we are to understand that world with our minds and bring our dreams into reality through engineering and understanding.

    Those dreams are hardly to “increase computer power” or other such yawnable aspects. People want to hear that science will change the world.. and scientists who don’t want to change the world suck.

    • jjjhayton Says:

      Couldn’t agree more. Thanks for the comment!

      • Bernardamus Says:

        When you are doing boring surface functionalization the whole day….sometimes it’s hard to convince ourselves that we are going to change the world…. and it’s hard to realize people don’t understand our job and are not enthusiastic at all. When I have to sell some sci-fi stories to attract some attention…I feel a gap and I start to think that what I really do is not interesting at all…so you need to boost it with some “bullshit”.
        First of all you should be really passionate about what you do in your daily job, from there you can fly up to a dreamy sci-fi world, then it makes sense.

  3. psi*psi Says:

    “I make new compounds for solar cells and flat-screen displays!” Easy. Stick to applications, and don’t be condescending.

  4. FF Says:

    I would take it down the Nano-bot root. Even if it’s make believe, everyone is interested in robots, especially tiny ones that don’t exist

  5. Bernardamus Says:

    Oh…I just noticed the kind “copyrights” declaration …. Shards of acknowledgments! Thanks

  6. Rob Lambert Says:

    Schoedinger’s Cat (sp?) makes a great story, not too long in the telling – bizarre in the interpretation.

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