January 15, 1999

A Formula for Laughter
By Esther Hecht

(One of the fathers of Israel's nuclear program, Prof. Harry Lipkin, is also
renowned among his peers for his talent in revealing the funny side of science)
    Two young women were walking in the woods when they saw a little frog. 

    Suddenly they heard the creature speak.

    "I'm not a real frog," he said. "I'm an enchanted physicist. If one of you
will pick me up and kiss me, I'll become the physicist again." 
    One of the women bent down and picked him up. But instead of kissing
him she put him in her purse. 
    "Aren't you going to kiss him?" the other woman asked.
    "Of course not," said the first. "No physicist will ever make as much money
as a talking frog." 

    That may be true, but no talking frog was ever as amusing as Prof. Harry
Lipkin, teller of the joke. Cofounder of the Weizmann Institute's nuclear
physics department, Lipkin is one of the world's leading theoreticians in
nuclear physics and elementary particles physics. Less publicly known is that
the American-born physicist, as scientific adviser to the director of the
nuclear reactor in Dimona, is one of the fathers of this country's still
secretive atomic program. His role in the creation of the Dimona project was
revealed this past autumn in the controversial book Israel and the Bomb, by
American scholar Avner Cohen. 

    But in the global scientific community, the 77-year-old Lipkin - known at
the Weizmann Institute by his Hebrew name, Zvi - has another claim to fame.
Cofounder of The Journal of Irreproducible Results and spiritual father of the
Ig Nobel Prize for ignominious achievement in science, he has such a reputation
as a humorist that his audiences at scientific conferences around the world
expect to be entertained. 

    Lipkin is the living antithesis of the popular image of the grim, humorless
scientist. And he claims he's not alone. 

    "Physicists naturally have a sense of humor," he contends. "You have to
think in ways that are different from what everybody does, all the time. It's
this kind of thinking that naturally leads you into humor." 

    It's a great theory, but fails to explain why Lipkin stands out.
Physicists' wit is about as visible to the general public as antimatter in the
universe is to physicists. 

    It may be hard to keep a straight face in a world populated by
left-spinning and right-spinning particles that annihilate each other on
contact, where every thing has its anti-, and where a thing can be itself and
something else at the same time, depending on how you look at it. 

    But physicists tend to write books with titles like Hadrons, Quarks and
Gluons, which are funny without intending to be so. Generally, they lack
Lipkin's ability to turn jargon and difficult concepts into plain language, as
he did in his series of books on physics "for pedestrians." And they don't seem
to share his talent and drive as an incorrigible deflater of pomp and manic
spinner of imaginary research. 

    He was already at it as an adolescent in his native Rochester, New York,
when he wrote an irreverent guide for hitchhikers, and as a graduate student at
Princeton, when he composed a set of fake exam questions in physics. 

    It was in 1956, after he had moved here, that a friend introduced him to
Alexander ("Leshek") Kohn, a biophysicist at the euphemistically named
Biological Institute in Ness Ziona. Kohn had produced the first issue of The
Journal of Irreproducible Results on April 1, 1955. Labeled "Volume II" and
listing references to an imaginary Volume I, it contained just one article,
heavily footnoted. 

    "The Inactivation Kinetics of Glassware" surveyed a previously unstudied
phenomenon well known to anyone who has ever worked in a lab: the tendency of
Petri dishes, pipettes, Erlenmayer flasks, beakers, syringes and even windows
to move from a state of wholeness into a state of fragmentation. 

    In July 1956, Kohn and Lipkin produced the first public issue of the
journal, most of which paid homage to that great technological advance, the
zipper. Amid the kidding was a true history of slide fasteners, which got their
zippy name only in 1923, when B.F. Goodrich marketed overshoes equipped with

    And, reflecting the politically incorrect spirit of the 50s, instead of
calculating the curve of the zipper function, Lipkin described the function of
the zipper "on the paraboloid curves of the substance under the [modern female
bathing] suit," and provided suitably curvaceous graphs and illustrations. 

    Bridging the gap between the sciences and the humanities, the journal
ventured into philology (a seminal article on the "Sexual Behavior of the Human
Language," by Lipkinsey) and folklore ("The Story of Hanukka," which raised the
eternal question of which came first, the dunking or the doughnut). 

    The journal achieved international renown in 1957, through the Rehovot
Conference on Nuclear Structure. Never at a loss for energy, Lipkin produced
daily bulletins for the conference participants. When the proceedings were
published, these light-hearted memos, along with items from the journal, were
tacked on at the end. "Theoretical Zipperdynamics" reappeared, alongside a
paper on "Religion, Thermodynamics and Communism." 

    In the latter, under "religion," Lipkin introduced a new particle, the
"trefon," a byproduct of the reaction generated by the combination of Hb
(hamburger) and Ch (cheese). 

    But the bombshell lay in the section headed "The Communistic Field," where
- taking off on the then- sensational concept of parity - Lipkin put a spin on
the Cold War. 

    "That left is anti-right and vice versa has been well observed, as well as
the strong interaction between left and right which can lead to mutual
annihilation," he wrote. 

    Lipkin sent a copy of the proceedings to a Jewish scientist in Romania who
had been invited to the conference but couldn't attend. For two weeks, the
Romanian's colleagues made pilgrimages to his office to chuckle over the
humorous bits. But then his institute's bureaucrats got wind of the book and
insisted he hand it over to the library. When the volume was next seen on the
library shelves, all the good parts had been cut out. 

    "It wasn't that they were anticommunist," Lipkin says. "They were making
fun of communism. That was worse." 

    An unexpurgated copy of the book eventually made its way to Bucharest by
way of China. It had been photocopied and distributed by the Chinese, for whom
it posed no problem, Lipkin explains, "because it wasn't making fun of the
Chinese, but of the Russians." 

    Spurred by the plug in the book, the journal gained new subscribers around
the world, eventually reaching as many as 2,000. But what soon became apparent
to the editors was that the fun of producing it was being overtaken by the
administrative burden. 

    Kohn decided to hand over the business end to an American publisher, a move
the editors came to regret. The publisher took increasing editorial control,
Lipkin says, and he withdrew as coeditor. In 1990 the journal was sold, and the
new publisher asked Marc Abrahams, of the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, to become its editor. 

    Abrahams turned to Kohn and Lipkin, who served as his mentors. Just before
Kohn's death in 1994, he helped Abrahams found The Annals of Improbable
Research (AIR), which Lipkin considers the true heir to the original journal
and to which he still contributes. 

    It was Abrahams who introduced the annual Ig Nobel Prizes. At the most
recent ceremony, held in October at Harvard University, the prize in safety
engineering went to Troy Hurtubise, of North Bay, Ontario, for developing and
personally testing a suit of armor that is impervious to grizzly bears. The
peace prize was awarded to the prime ministers of India and Pakistan "for their
aggressively peaceful explosions of atomic bombs." 

    And in statistics, the award went to Jerald Bain of Mt. Sinai Hospital in
Toronto and Kerry Siminoski of the University of Alberta for their carefully
measured report, "The Relationship Among Height, Penile Length, and Foot Size,"
(published in Annals of Sex Research). 

    Duct tape was the theme of the ceremony, attended by Nobel Prize laureates,
and, as reported in AIR's website (, "a duct-tape fashion
show demonstrated the versatility of the adhesive, as did the revelation that
... Hurtubise's bear suit contained over a mile of the stuff." Nobel laureates
Dudley Herschbach, William Lipscomb and Richard Roberts wore gigantic shoes in
tribute to the statistics prize winners. 

    It's one thing for scientists to send up each other; quite another for the
public to poke fun at them. 

    "Most humor from outside directed at scientists comes from people who don't
understand what science is all about," Lipkin says. 

    That was true of Jonathan Swift, the 18th-century author of Gulliver's
Travels. Like his Tory compatriots, Swift failed to understand the role the new
science and new technology were already playing in everyday life. 

    Thus, when Gulliver visits the grand academy in the country named Lagado,
the description reflects Swift's obsession with the excretions of his own
ailing body. He depicts one of the scientists as engaged in reducing "excrement
to its original food," and another as experimenting on mechanical cures for
malfunctions of the digestive tract. All of it, Swift implies, is useless at
best, disastrous at worst. 

    It is the same attitude Lipkin finds himself struggling against to this
day. "They think physicists are terrible people who make bombs. Nobody thinks
about the transistor, the modern computer and the laser - which have
revolutionized our quality of life and made it so different from when I was in
high school." 

    And decisions on how much money should be allocated for basic research are
made by politicians, who don't understand science and want to see a quick
practical payoff. 

    "There are always technological spinoffs [eventually, but in science you
should not expect something that will work immediately," Lipkin says. It was
one of the first lessons he learned in college. 

    When he arrived at Cornell University as an undergraduate in electrical
engineering, he discovered there would be only one semester of electronics. 

    "The professors said, 'You kids are all excited about ham radio, but there
is no future in electronics. You have to study power transmission, power
engineering. That's where the jobs are.' 

    "But some of us had heard there were very interesting courses in the
physics department. In the engineering school we were taught that electrical
energy traveled in wires. They knew it traveled in air, but they didn't
understand it. In the physics department we learned all about the properties of
electrical energy with no attempt to say it was practical." 

    It was the basic knowledge, rather than the practical training, that landed
him a job. As soon as he graduated he was recruited to work in the supersecret
microwave lab at MIT, where he found that everything was electronic. 

    "I learned quickly that what is practical today is out of date tomorrow. If
you want to prepare yourself for tomorrow, you have to look at the basics. All
the top people at the lab were physicists, not engineers; the engineers just
didn't understand it." 

    Lipkin was a child of the Great Depression. His grandmother was the niece
of Rabbi Israel Ben Ze'ev Wolf (Salanter) Lipkin, founder of the Musar
movement, which emphasized strict ethical behavior. His parents, who were
cousins, were immigrants from Latvia. His father had a year's worth of
university-level study in chemistry, but could find only odd jobs during those
bleak years. His mother supported the family by working as a bookkeeper. 

    His haredi and nonreligious relatives lived in close harmony, Lipkin
recalls with nostalgia, and he benefited from it. From his father, he learned
to read Russian and German; his uncle taught him to read Hebrew. But there was
no money to spare for the boy's higher education. A student adviser at his high
school recognized his talent and helped him get a scholarship at Cornell. He
enrolled in 1938. 

    Lipkin worked in a fraternity house in exchange for meals, but that created
another problem, because the food wasn't kosher. A switch to the Jewish
fraternity should have helped, but "they served pork chops the first Friday
night and that was the end of my kashrut." 

    Meanwhile, Lipkin remained very active in the left-wing Zionist youth
movement, Hashomer Hatza'ir. While getting his Ph.D in nuclear physics at
Princeton, he spent all his free time at the movement's agricultural training
farm nearby. It was there that he met his wife, Malka. It was there, too, that
his determination to be a pioneer crystallized. 

    In December 1950, the Lipkins boarded a boat bound for Israel. At Haifa
port they were met by Prof. Chaim Pekeris, another recent immigrant from the
US, who had founded the department of applied mathematics at the Weizmann
Institute and who would later build Israel's first computer. Pekeris wanted
Lipkin to join the institute immediately. But the Lipkins were adamant: They
were headed for a life on the land. 

    "We're happy to have you, but we know you won't stay," they were told when
they arrived at Kibbutz Sasa, northeast of Haifa. After all, Lipkin was one of
just two people in the country with a degree in nuclear physics; he would have
to be a different kind of pioneer. 

    Meanwhile, however, the kibbutz put his other talents to use. As part of a
construction crew, he poured cement. Also, he was expected to use his
electronics background to repair broken radios. 

    "It required knowledge: If a tube didn't light up, it needed to be
replaced," he says wryly. 

    Two months later, he was working in an electronics lab outside the kibbutz.
And he might have stayed in Sasa to this day, he says, if a job had
materialized at the Technion, or if he had not been tapped by Shimon Peres for
the atomic energy program. 

    By the spring of 1952, that program was set up and the Lipkins moved to
Rehovot. Soon after, he was sent to France for a year to learn about nuclear
reactors. On his return, he helped found the institute's nuclear physics
department and, with Prof. Yuval Ne'eman at Tel Aviv University, started
training the theoretical particle physicists who are now the country's leaders
in the field. 

    It was with Ne'eman, today chairman of the Israel Space Agency, that Lipkin
embarked on another of his "subversive" activities. They were founders of the
Scientists' Committee of the Public Council for Soviet Jews. 

    Lipkin had been to the Soviet Union for conferences in 1966 and 1970 and
was known to Soviet scientists professionally. But his name, and news of his
journal, spread even further when some of his humorous articles appeared in
Russian translation in the anthology Physicists Are Joking, and its sequel,
Physicists Are Still Joking, published in the 70s. The books were extremely
popular among Soviet scientists, who became experts in combining humor and
subterfuge to get around the bans on freedom of expression. 

    One of Lipkin's signal successes was on behalf of dissident leader Andrei
Sakharov, who was banished to Gorky that year. To discredit Sakharov, the
Communist Party invited Soviet scientists to lectures at which they said he was
a Jew whose real name was Zukerman and that he had become a dissident because
he was no longer capable of producing worthwhile research. 

    A paper Sakharov had smuggled out reached Lipkin, who was asked to review
it for a professional journal. To Lipkin's surprise, it described work very
similar to his own on testing the quark model. That summer, while teaching at
summer school in Sicily, he mentioned that Sakharov, independently, had reached
the same results as himself. 

    "The director of the school was very excited," Lipkin recalls, "because any
evidence that Sakharov was active was important. He asked me to write a popular
version of this work, which he translated into Italian." 

    The article appeared prominently in Italy's leading daily. Later, Sakharov
managed to smuggle out a postcard to Lipkin, just as Victor Brailovsky, then
head of the refuseniks' scientific seminar in Moscow, was arrested. Lipkin
contacted The Washington Post, which ran an editorial about Brailovsky's
arrest, titled "A Voice out of the Darkness," saying the postcard was proof
that the dissidents and the refuseniks could not be silenced. 

    Brailovsky, now a computer scientist at Tel Aviv University, recalls that
he and other Soviet scientists were certain at first that Lipkin was an
American, because Physicists Are Joking and its sequel made no mention of
Israel. Only when Lipkin visited the refuseniks' seminar did they learn that he
lives in Rehovot. 

    Still busy with research, Lipkin remains engaged in every aspect of Israeli
life, from elementary-school education to politics. 

    A tireless writer of letters to the editor and opinion pieces, many of
which have appeared in this paper, Lipkin recently commented on the electoral
campaign of Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who may be a distant relative and whose face
reminds Lipkin of his own father. 

    Lipkin-Shahak's attempt to dissociate himself from the left was a move that
reflects the way people vote in this country, Lipkin says. "A lot of people
don't vote for something, but against something else," Lipkin says. 

    This, of course, dovetails with Lipkin's most recent research endeavor:
Explaining why, if the big bang created equal amounts of matter and antimatter
(that is, particles with opposite electrical charges), there is no antimatter
to be seen. 

    One idea, first proposed by Sakharov, is that all the antimatter has
decayed, leaving behind only matter. 

    But if Lipkin's political analysis is correct, there is a far simpler
solution: All the anti has simply concentrated itself in the heart of the
Israeli voter.   

Jerusalem Post 1999