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Penn & Teller Help Play a Joke on Arno Penzias Videos for Engineers
you are going to play a public joke on your boss, especially when he is a Nobel Prize winner, you had better be
certain that he has a good sense of humor. Evidently co-workers of 1978 physics laureate
Penzias were pretty confident that he was the jovial type. Penzias and fellow scientist Robert Wilson, you may
recall, famously discovered the primordial background cosmic radiation while attempting to get rid of low level
noise in a high sensitivity radio telescope receiver that they designed for a
horn antenna at Bell Labs. According to the credits at
the end, in 1990 Bell Labs engineers Rob Pike
and Dennis Ritchie (C language inventor)
arranged with magicians Penn (Gillette) and Teller to
devise a trick where they would convince Mr. Penzias that they had developed an artificial intelligence software
program that was capable of answering his questions after speaking to the computer. It was to represent leading
edge voice recognition. Keep in mind that this is 20+-year-old
technology, so don't expect anything too whiz-bang. The video is displayed on what appears to be a monochrome,
SVGA CRT monitor, and the jerkiness of the motion is reminiscent of the
Max Headroom type production
typical of futuristic movies of the era. Don't scoff; someday 2012 technology will be laughed at by viewers of 3D
holographic displays. Anyway, watch the video to see how a Nobel Prize in physics winner responds to the prank.
Gillette is an extremely bright guy and well-versed in science, as evidenced by his appearances on TV discussion
shows. He uttered a very quotable line in the video, so quotable, in fact, that I will be using it as tomorrow's
Notable Quote: "The backbone of science is the demo. When you get something that
almost works, you call in your boss and get it to almost almost work in front of him."
These kinds of
topics always remind me of the old
Far Side comics that poked fun at scientists by exploiting the stereotype that presumes technical types have
either no humor or a very strange sense of humor.