Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Guest Post: The World in a Ballpoint Pen, by Jack Labusch

My ballpoint pen . . . that’s my laboratory!

We have a lot to thank theoretical physicists for. They’re different, though, right? Well, maybe not so much. Here’s Physicist Richard Feynman on a new malady you may recognize that he first saw in one of his Manhattan Project colleagues at Los Alamos.

“ . . . [Stanley] Frankel eventually suffered from ‘computer disease’, a preoccupation with using the computer itself rather than running designated problems on it. This disease interfered so much with his functioning in the implosion program that [Hans] Bethe in March 1945 asked Feynman to take over the computation group.” (Credit: Critical Assembly, by Hoddeson, Henriksen, et. al.)

Above is Physicist Julian Schwinger in 1965, shown in his home after winning the Nobel Prize in physics along with Feynman and Shinichiro Tomonaga. I can’t identify the pen, and the body language seems incomprehensible to this onetime salesman. Anyone want to take a shot at interpreting the photo? (Photo found on Wikipedia. The original caption reads: “His laboratory is his ballpoint pen”.)


  1. He is saying "You make me another cup of coffee this bad .... I'm shoving my pen right up your nose !"

  2. He's saying that all he needs is a pen to write down the theories, calculations and conclusions that come from his brilliant mind... no laboratory, no equipment.

  3. Thanks, razide and Anonymous. Somebody provoked the body English, that's for sure. I was a youngster in 1965, and don't have a clue about the pen. "Ballpoint" it says in the original caption, but the paraphrase may not be accurate. Seems the barrel's too wide for Papermate, but my memory's a little shaky.

    Anyone else want to take a shot at photo forensics?


  4. I'm thinking we may be looking at the cap end of a Cross - the conical tip to the cap - rather than the business end of a ballpoint.
    Was the Century 2 ballpoint around in 1965? It looks too wide for a Classic Century unless it's a Century fountain pen

  5. Michael, thanks, that does look something like Cross's flattened cone.

    I enjoyed writing this. As a youngster, I was a science buff, and later worked as a tech writer. I've also done a little minor politicking. Miserable stuff that was. I hope, Diane, you won't mind my contrast between science and politics:

    Science: You pose questions, you find answers, you make progress.

    Politics: You ignore questions, you suppress answers, you pedal in place while conning the odometer into thinking you're making progress.

    Thanks, Diane, and to the readers. Jack/Youngstown

  6. Michael, not that I can see it very well but that pen could also be be the tip of a Parker Jotter. I've got one in front of me circa early 70s and it looks like a good match.

    From the way he's holding the cup and pen I'd say that wasn't coffee he was drinking. :)