19 September 2019

Monty Python's Science Circus

Monty Python's Science Circus Caroline McNiel

And now for something completely different: 10 high-field physics predictions that Monty Python nailed.

Story by KRISTEN COYNE, GIFs by STEPHEN BILENKY

  • Half a century ago, a group of wacky Englishmen appeared in the first episode of an unconventional comedy series that would, with its irreverent, boundary-pushing humor, soon attract a cult following. With its absurd scenarios, racy sight gags, silly accents and garish graphics, "Monty Python's Flying Circus" entertained, shocked and inspired audiences worldwide. Over the course of 45 episodes and several movies, the outfit introduced the world to things like silly walks, singing lumberjacks and tree-climbing sheep — images that shall live forever in our hearts, popular culture and, of course, on YouTube.

    Less well known, however, is the fact that many of the skits written and performed by the Python posse foretold important milestones of high magnetic field research. The troop's funny façade belied an uncanny ability to see ahead decades into the future of physics. Below we list just a few instances of this Pythonic brilliance, showing how the comedians predicted discoveries about electron behavior such as superconductivity (when electrons travel through materials without any resistance, in contrast to the conventional conductivity we're familiar with in copper, for example) and about new world-record electromagnets that made those discoveries possible.

    The Bridge Keeper

    From: "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"

     
    Bride Keeper animation
     

    SYNOPSIS: Accompanied by his knights, King Arthur approaches a bridge spanning the Gorge of Eternal Peril. To gain access, each must answer three questions posed by a hump-backed ogre; an incorrect answer results in a one-way trip to the bottom of the gorge. That is precisely where some of the ill-fated knights end up when, after acing two softballs, they stumble on the third question, an unexpected curve ball. (King Arthur, of course, tricks the trickster, successfully overcoming yet another obstacle.)

    HIGH-FIELD PREDICTION: This sketch is clearly an allegory for the scientific quest for knowledge, and how we can be duped into believing we fully know something when, in fact, we only dimly understand. Take superconductivity, for example. The scientists who, in the mid 1950s, finally explained the behavior of electrons in superconductivity (first observed in 1911) were later honored by the Nobel Prize. But Mother Nature threw a curve ball a few decades later with the discovery of high-temperature superconductivity (HTS), a phenomenon the 1957 theory could not explain. Once again, scientists found themselves in the Bleak Pit of Ignorance. Ever since, using high magnetic fields and other tools, they have labored to pinpoint the physics behind HTS, which occurs at much warmer (read: practical) temperatures than conventional superconductivity. Is it charge order? Spin order? Electron nematicity? Physicists are busy testing theories, but aren’t ready to bring them to the Bridge Keeper quite yet.

    SPAM

    From: "Monty Python's Flying Circus," Season 2, Episode 12

     
    SPAM animation
     

    SYNOPSIS: Mr. and Mrs. Bun visit a café popular among Vikings. Inquiring about the menu, they learn that everything includes at least one side of SPAM. Some items include multiple portions, and one consists of nothing but SPAM. Unlike the other customers, Mrs. Bun is no fan of SPAM. Her husband, a SPAM devotee, offers to eat her portion.

    HIGH-FIELD PREDICTION: This sketch predicts the invention of a special magnet that, like Mrs. Bun, dislikes SPAM. In the sketch, SPAM is clearly a metaphor for what magnet scientists call "noise." The most powerful electromagnets in the world today generate undesirable "noise," or fluctuations in the magnetic field, that result from fluctuations in the power source and can muddy data. But, as the Pythons prognosticated, the National MagLab in 2016 debuted a special kind of magnet, the 36-tesla Series Connected Hybrid magnet (tesla is a unit of magnetic field strength), that yields a very high field with relatively little SPAM — er, noise. Mrs. Bun would be proud.

    Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things banner

    From: "Monty Python's Flying Circus," Season 2, Episode 18

     
    Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things animation
     

    SYNOPSIS: At a fancy meeting of this exclusive group, tuxedo-clad gentlemen praise the achievements of members who have succeeded to — well — place some things on top of other things.

    HIGH-FIELD PREDICTION: This sketch clearly presages the advent of van der Waals heterostructures, which are made up of two or more layers of one-atom-thin materials such as graphene. Physicists have been experimenting with different combinations of wafer-like materials, stacking them strategically, arranging them at varying angles atop one another, and exposing them to extreme environments such as high fields and high pressures. Adjusting these parameters often yields exciting quantum behaviors such as superconductivity. Scientists generally don't wear formal attire when working with heterostructures. However, the materials may one day lead some of them to a Nobel Prize ceremony, where tuxes and evening gowns are de rigueur.

    Theory on Brontosauruses banner

    From: "Monty Python's Flying Circus," Season 3, Episode 31

     
    Theory on Brontosauruses animation
     

    SYNOPSIS: Paleontologist Anne Elk is interviewed on a television show about her theory of brontosauruses. After much throat-clearing and repeated proclamations that the theory is, indeed, her theory, she finally spits it out: "All brontosauruses are thin at one end, much, much thicker in the middle and then thin again at the far end."

    HIGH-FIELD PREDICTION: This sketch divines the dome of superconductivity, which is shaped very much like the brontosaurus of Elk's theory. This dome is an area on a graph that depicts the specific conditions under which a material becomes a superconductor. When you connect the data points, a dome shape emerges: The temperature at which superconductivity occurs rises as a second parameter (typically pressure, magnetic field strength or manipulating the atomic makeup of the material through a process called doping) increases. After reaching a zenith, the superconducting temperature drops off again, creating a telltale hump reminiscent of a grazing brontosaurus. While the giant, Jurassic-era herbivore is extinct, its noble profile lives on in physics!

    Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch banner

    From: "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"

     
    Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch animation
     

    SYNOPSIS: After some of his knights are taken out by a killer rabbit, King Arthur and his remaining entourage deploy the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch against the brutal bunny. The weapon, intended to "blow thy enemies to tiny bits," hits its mark, allowing the heroes to proceed on their noble quest.

    HIGH-FIELD PREDICTION: This sketch clearly foretells the creation of a research magnet so powerful that it explodes with every use. So-called "single-turn" magnets, found at labs in France, Japan, Germany and the United States, create enormous fields in the hundreds of teslas (T) that last mere microseconds before exploding. The sample that scientists put inside the magnet to study under high-field conditions, however, remains intact. Although the magnet ends up in "tiny bits" in these controlled explosions, the real enemy defeated by the blast is ignorance, as valiant scientists build knowledge with every experiment.

    The Miracle of Birth banner

    From: "The Meaning of Life"

     
    The Miracle of Birth animation
     

    SYNOPSIS: A woman in labor is rushed into an operating room filled to bursting with an assortment of fancy medical equipment. The machinery includes a contraption that produces an impressive "bing" sound, the main purpose of which is to awe hospital administrators.

    HIGH-FIELD PREDICTION: This sketch heralds the birth, in 2012, of the 100-tesla multishot pulsed magnet, the strongest magnet of its kind in the world. When it produces its 15-millisecond-long pulse of magnetic field, it generates a unique and mighty din. The 100-T, however, is hardly just for show, and has facilitated many important discoveries over the years. While no hospital honchos have been known to visit it, it has wowed a long stream of scientists, including several Nobel laureates.

    The Pet Shop banner

    From: "Monty Python's Flying Circus," Season 1, Episode 8

     
    Pet Shop animation
     

    SYNOPSIS: An unhappy customer tries to return a recently purchased Norwegian Blue parrot. He insists that the bird is deceased and would not revive even if 4,000 volts were passed through it. The pet shop owner begs to differ: Although the bird is immobile, it is actually "stunned" and "pining for the fjords."

    HIGH-FIELD PREDICTION: This sketch prophesies both the theory (1976) and experimental evidence (2013) of a stunning physics phenomenon known as Hofstadter's butterfly, for which the parrot (another winged creature) is clearly a stand-in. Studying specific two-dimensional materials in a high magnetic field, physicists working at the National MagLab observed the predicted fractal energy pattern; plotted on a graph in the same vivid blues as the parrot, the data resemble butterfly wings. The landmark discovery is expanding scientists’ understanding of the basic physics of electrons in a magnetic field. It's no wonder the parrot/butterfly of the sketch pines for the fjords — code for fields, as in high magnetic fields — because only under those extreme conditions (and with an electrostatic gate to apply the "reviving" voltage) can this "butterfly" be brought to life, observed and understood.

    Mosquito Hunters banner

    From: "Monty Python's Flying Circus," Season 2, Episode 21

     
    Mosquito Hunters animation
     

    SYNOPSIS: A pair of hunters armed to the teeth with machine guns, bazookas and even a tank pursue the tiniest of prey: mosquitos. After much shooting, booming and blasting, they succeed in annihilating their quarry.

    HIGH-FIELD PREDICTION: This sketch augurs the creation, still decades in the future, of a massive magnet used by physicists to study very tiny things. Weighing more than 31,000 kg, the 45-tesla hybrid magnet, housed at the National MagLab, opened to scientists in 1999, allowing them to observe teensy-tiny electrons and the crazy things they do when subjected to extreme environments such as high magnetic fields, high pressures, and temperatures colder than Pluto. As in the sketch foretelling its creation, the tool may seem inordinately large compared to its wee prey. In this case the size is justified by the energy requirements of so powerful an instrument. The 45-T magnet remains the strongest continuous field magnet in use in the world, giving researchers an unparalleled view of quantum behavior in a wide variety of materials.

    The Black Knight banner

    From: "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"

     
    The Black Knight
     

    SYNOPSIS: Riding through the woods on his quest for the Holy Grail, King Arthur happens upon a sword fight, during which the Black Knight triumphs. Impressed, the king invites him to join his quest. The knight not only declines but also bars the king from proceeding, at which point the regent draws his own sword and attacks. Despite losing one limb after another, the knight fights on. Even after the king rides away after reducing his foe to a torso, the Black Knight refuses to give up, hurling insults after him. After all: The Black Knight always triumphs.

    HIGH-FIELD PREDICTION: The brave (if misguided) Black Knight foretells the behavior of a Shastry-Sutherland lattice, a certain geometric arrangement of atoms named after the scientists who first theorized it in 1981. Some years later, scientists found magnetic materials that actually display this geometry. They are what physicists call a “frustrated” magnet, because some of its electrons are conflicted about which direction to “spin” in (spin is a quantum property of electrons very roughly analogous to a spinning top). Electron spins tend to align neatly with a magnetic field. But in one Shastry-Sutherland system that some scientists study — SrCu2(BO3)2 — electrons resist (like the stubborn Black Knight) this magnetization.

    They do this by becoming quantum mechanically entangled in a non-magnetic state called a spin singlet. However, with specific increases in magnetic field strength — with every swipe of the magnetic sword, if you will — a higher percentage of paired electrons is detangled, released and able to contribute to magnetization. When scientists put SrCu2(BO3)2 in the world-record 100-tesla pulsed magnet at the National MagLab, they found several “magnetization plateaus,” each corresponding to a different composition of paired and unpaired spins. Still, even at 100 teslas, a significant percentage (like half!) of electrons would not magnetize, displaying the same tenacity as the Black Knight. Are they invincible? Or just loony? Scientists will need to build a stronger magnet to answer that compelling question.

    Ministry of Silly Walks banner

    From: "Monty Python's Flying Circus," Season 2, Episode 1

     
    Ministry of Silly Walks animation
     

    SYNOPSIS: An employee of the Ministry of Silly Walks makes his way to work along London's sidewalks, exhibiting a variety of ridiculous gaits while maintaining an exceedingly straight face. Arriving in his office he encounters a gentleman keen to request a grant to develop a new silly walk.

    HIGH-FIELD PREDICTION: It is almost eerie how clearly this skit portends the careers of many a condensed matter physicist in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. These scientists were eager to explore the many ways electrons travel through different materials and under different conditions such as high fields, their behaviors as myriad as the silly walks performed in this skit. And like the grant-seeker in the sketch, these researchers often seek government funding to explore the surprising, perplexing and (some might say) even silly ways electrons mosey through materials. But make no mistake: Their work is anything but silly, paving the way to faster electronics, more energy-efficient solar cells and more powerful diagnostic tools for doctors.

     

    Special thanks to the Ministry of Silly Science for their ideas and expertise: Ryan Baumbach, Greg Boebinger, Bill Brey, Scott Crooker, Scott Hannahs, Marcelo Jaime, Tim Murphy and Steve Ranner.

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Last modified on 19 September 2019