CHICAGO—Scientists have long been labeled as overly serious, narrowly focused individuals who don't have time for fun. But two University of Chicago atomic physicists proved that even the most buttoned-down professionals are capable of enjoying a good laugh every now and then. Last week, Drs. Marcus Hurley and Thom Fredericks unveiled what they are calling their "most hilarious work to date": an oversize novelty atom that measures "a ridiculously huge" 8.2 x 10-10 meters in diameter.
According to Hurley and Fredericks, who nicknamed the new element "Humongolium," the entire physics department was in hysterics over the sight of an atom nearly 10 times the size of a normal atom and "so big you can practically see it through a high-powered standard optical microscope."
Over the past week, the scientists have been taking their PZT scanner, microscale cantilever, laser, Wheatstone bridge, photodiode, and data-feedback monitor from office to office, trying to get a rise out of colleagues by placing the novelty atom directly next to a common hydrogen atom.
"Look at this thing," said Hurley, who illustrated the size of the particle by holding his thumb right up next to his forefinger in an exaggerated fashion. "And I thought Francium atoms were huge. It's almost as big as a molecule, for crying out loud!"
"God, it just looks so ridiculous," Hurley added, chuckling and shaking his head in disbelief. "Who comes up with this stuff?"
Hurley and Fredericks have put off their research on the properties and applications of ferroelectric materials indefinitely, instead choosing to spend the majority of their time "messing around" with the gigantic atom. In the past two days, they have each gotten their picture taken next to an oversize slide of the atom and e-mailed it to colleagues around the country, put Humongolium in a particle collider to see it smash other atoms into thousands of smaller particles, and irradiated several of the atoms to give them a "goofy green glow."
"We suspected that the creation of such a ludicrously enormous atom would be hilarious, but that hypothesis didn't fully prepare us for how truly funny the result would actually be," Fredericks said. "Man, no way we're getting any more work done this year."
According to post-doctoral stereochemist Kristy Schwarz, Hurley and Fredericks lured her into their lab Tuesday under the pretense of testing some lab equipment in order to surprise her with an image of the massive particle.
"They asked me to see if I thought there was anything wrong with their piezoelectric tube, and then gathered around with these eager looks on their faces as I checked it out," Schwarz said. "As soon as the image of that atom came on the screen, everyone just lost it. I nearly knocked over my model of a constitutional isomer, I was laughing so hard."
Although most of the UC scientists have seen the atom "about 1,000 times" by now, they say they'll never get tired of what is coming to be known as "the ultimate sight gag." Several admitted that they haven't laughed like this since Hurley and Fredericks rearranged the lab's periodic-table poster in such an amusing fashion that the lanthanides and actinides were replaced with isotopes of alkali metals.
"At first, I thought [Humongolium] was just a covalent network crystal lattice, so I didn't know what everyone thought was so funny," particle chemist Bryce Davidson said. "When they told me that it was just one colossal atom, I started cracking up too."
He added: "I know it's just a silly oversize atom, but because it maintained all the same physical properties of regular atoms, and because it still had the same tiny nucleus I'm used to seeing—I dunno. I can't explain it, it's just funny when things are really big."
Some scientists, however, are no longer amused at the atom's exaggerated size.
"Come on. It's a big atom—so what?" part-time lab assistant Bob Freedman said. "That joke has a half-life of about 15 nanoseconds."
Although Hurley and Fredericks admitted that the humor of the novelty atom is "a little broad," they argued that it's refreshing to create material that even a molecular biologist will be able to appreciate.
"Sure, it's not as subtle as the parody atom Gurtzman and Kuusivaarta came up with last year," Fredericks said. "But no one really got that one. When you have to explain to people that neutrons are supposed to have a slightly larger mass than protons—not the other way around—in order for them to understand the joke, it's not funny."