Posts Tagged ‘humor’


Published by Gregory Benford on February 10th, 2012

 This essay was written before Sid Coleman’s untimely death in 2007.

(First published in Trapdoor 25. Art by Dan Steffan.)

 Gregory Benford

In January 2007 Sid Coleman’s wife, Diana, sent a letter to their friends about his decline. It was troubling; Sid was one of those I most admired in fandom—indeed, in life. But now his particular sort of Parkinson’s had advanced until he could not live at home any more.

Diana had placed him in a living facility, where she visited him daily. He went long times now without speaking, she said, but at times a glint of the old Sydney would flicker. His roommate, a cook, remarked that Sid seemed to be a nice man. “Appearances are deceiving,” Sid said, with a sly smile.

The Fan

Her letter set me to remembering. Sid was so much—physicist, raconteur, world traveler—and he gave much to science fiction. His teenage toils for Advent Publishers supported a scrupulous, ambitious role for fans in holding the field to its standards.

In 1960 he said in Earl Kemp’s Who Killed SF?, “I am not in science fiction for money; I am in it for joy. Formally, I am a publisher (actually, 14% of a publisher). This is useful: it gets me on the mailing list of PITFCS; it is a handy topic of conversation at parties; it is a means whereby I meet some interesting people; it is a better hobby than stamp-collecting any day.  From an economic standpoint, it plays a lesser role in my life than returning Coke bottles for refunds.”

Earl Kemp, Ed Wood, Sid and some others created a fannish publishing house, Advent Publishers, in 1956. He was a teenager when he helped publish Advent’s first book, Damon Knight’s In Search of Wonder. Week after week the fans gathered at Earl Kemp’s apartment in Chicago, catching typos in the photo offset text. Ed Wood, a very large fan with a very large voice, and Sid, maintained an unrelenting dialog about the purpose of science fiction fandom—Ed loudly proclaiming that fandom should “spread the science fiction faith,” while Sid insisted on a smaller purpose, like fun.

Earl Kemp recalled that Sid was at his very best when criticizing someone for what he thought was a shortcoming. Sid’s inimitable trick was to do it with charm and wit that left the target injured but somehow happy about the whole thing and anxious to tell others about it.

Fandom was for him a larger family, an audience for a swift, subtle sense of humor. At a Halloween party in Chicago, he appeared costumed as “Judas Iscariot as Sidney Coleman with thirty pieces of silver,” carrying three dollars in dimes.  In a letter of comment he remarked, “The interstate highway now passes through Indiana and Illinois, traversing some of the flattest territory in the nation. It has been said of this geography, ‘You could see a hundred miles in every direction, if only there was something worth looking at.’”

From a fanzine piece: “Did I ever tell you about my great-grandfather, Stephen Rich, the stingiest man in Slonim? When the local stonecutter went out of business, he had him make up a tombstone for him, cheap, with everything on it but the date of great-grandfather’s death. He kept it in his front yard and tethered his goat to it. At least that’s what my mother has always told me, but she’s quite capable of having stolen the whole incident from an Erskine Caldwell novel.”

Jim Caughran recalled, “He could make a story of what he’d done today into a hilarious adventure. He could seize the moment, improvising.” A faculty couple at Caltech owned a gentle German shepherd. While he was a grad student Sid would occasionally do dog-sitting duties. The doorbell to the apartment rang. Sidney opened the door with the dog close behind. “Ha! A stranger!” Sidney said, “Kill, Fang!”

And he had an incredible repertory of Jewish jokes. Terry Carr once asked him, “How many jokes can you tell that start, ‘One day in the garment district…’?”  He was speechless, then said he couldn’t put a number to them.”

Martha Beck was at a science fiction function and got into a conversation with a man who was a physicist. She casually mentioned Sid, and the man said in awed tones, “You know Sidney Coleman!?”

After all, Sid attended high school and university simultaneously, getting his bachelor’s degree when he graduated from high school, a feat I’ve never known to be equaled. Sid went to Caltech for his doctorate with Murray Gell-Mann in 1962, age 25. He attended LASFS meetings and swiftly became a major theoretical physicist.  Many fans never quite knew his prominence.

“I’m at the top of the second rank,” Carol Carr remembers him saying.

Sid the Physicist

I first met him in the 1960s, introduced by Terry Carr, who explained with a wry smile, “You’re both in physics and write for Innuendo [Terry’s fanzine], so you should probably know each other.” Sid was already both a better physicist and wit, of course. He was far more subtle and powerful in his mathematics than I.

In the late 1980s he caught the attention of the entire physics world with a calculation, using a “wormhole calculus” he invented for the purpose. It carried the characteristically witty title, “Why there is nothing rather than something: a theory of the cosmological constant.” [Nucl. Phys. B 310: 643 (1988)] In it he concluded that through complex dynamics in the first moments of the universe, it was later able to sustain life forms that could perhaps “know joy.”

He showed how the cosmological constant could be forced to be zero in the early universe. This fit the prevailing prejudice among theorists that the constant, first introduced by Einstein to make the universe static, neither expanding nor contracting. When Hubble found in the late 1920s that the universe is expanding, Einstein said imposing the constant was a blunder, not because it was a bad idea, but because Einstein didn’t see that the resulting equilibrium was unstable. Any minor jiggle would destroy the static state, starting motion. Even with the constant, he should have foreseen that Hubble would either see a universe growing or shrinking.

Sidney had no prejudice either way on the value of the constant, but he did see a pretty way to use quantum mechanical ideas to propose a sweet model—the sort of confection theorists hold dear. I was startled by the intricate audacity of his calculation, as were many others.

At the time I had been working on some wormhole calculations myself, much more prosaically trying to find a way to see if we had any wormholes nearby and if they could be found out through their refracting ability. Some wormholes might develop one end that looked as though it had negative mass, since its other end had funneled a lot of mass out through its mouth. These would yield a unique refracting signature, two peaks, if a star passed behind it, along our line of sight. Find the two peaks (rather than one for ordinary wormhole mouths, or any ordinary mass) and—presto, a gateway to the stars, maybe. It was a clear longshot.

Sid had no illusions about his model—it was a longshot, too, that just might be right. Worth a chance. I felt the same.

Everybody liked the “wormhole calculus” because they liked the result, a zero constant. That seemed clean, neat, a theorist’s delight. Sid basked in the attention, though he didn’t think this was his best work. My work, done with several others, got a lot of citation and wasn’t my best, either; wormholes just get good press. Sid quoted Einstein wryly that “If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and the Swiss will declare that I am their citizen. If it fails, Switzerland will say I’m a German and the Germans will say I am a Jew.”

It turned out that the cosmological constant isn’t zero at all. In fact, it represents the highest energy density in the universe, far more important in dynamics than mere matter like us. In fact, it’s close to the value that will eventually give us the Big Rip that will tear everything apart at the End of Time, even atoms. When I mentioned in 1996 the recent discovery that the constant was large, not zero, Sid shrugged. “Win some, lose some in the old cosmology game.”

We haven’t found any refracting wormholes, either. That’s just how science goes.

The Sidneyfest

When Sid’s decline became evident, the Harvard physics department put on a Sidneyfest that ran over a weekend. Some reports on this event, with pictures, are at  HYPERLINK

Then-president of Harvard Larry Summers opened the Fest before a large crowd with, “There has not been so much talent gathered around the snack table since Einstein snacked alone.” Nobelist Steven Weinberg gave the next talk, discussing how to calculate Feynman diagrams for quantized general relativity. He talked about work in progress, and at the end said, “I don’t know what to do now.  Does anybody else?”  This was the place to ask! He added, “In happier times, I would have gone straight to Sidney Coleman.”

Though Weinberg is now at the University of Texas, he shared the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics with Shelly Glashow and Abdus Salam for work done down the hall from Sid. “Sidney is a theorist’s theorist,” Weinberg said. “He has not been so much concerned with accounting for the latest data from experiments as with understanding deeply what our theories really mean. I can say I learned more about physics from Sidney than from anyone else. I also learned more good jokes from him than from anyone else.”

The noted particle theorist Howard Georgi said, “In his prime, which lasted for a very long time, from the mid ‘60s to the late ‘80s, Sidney was such a towering figure in theoretical physics that even his close colleagues (Nobel prize winners, etc.) were somewhat in awe of him. In fact, we had to be careful about talking to Sidney too soon about new ideas, because he was so smart and had such encyclopedic knowledge that he could kill nascent ideas before they really got started.”

Sidney was a beloved teacher of graduate students, and many of them attended the Sidneyfest. Sid referred to the community as i fratelli fisici, by which he meant the brotherhood of physicists. (Most physicists speak at least a bit of broken Italian, a legacy of the grand and highly influential summer schools organized by Nino Zichichi in Erice, Sicily.) In a physics career one often arrives by train or plane, anywhere in the world, on the way to a conference or academic visit. One of the fondest reflections of being a scientist is to then be greeted by a total stranger, who immediately treated one like an old friend. Erice was like that; the brotherhood of science. With good food.

The town likes the NATO-backed workshops because they bring an elevated form of tourism to the ancient town on a granite spire, perched a kilometer above a beautiful beach. One year a noted German physicist drove down in his brand new Mercedes and parked it outside the workshop buildings, which were once a convent. He emerged an hour later to find the Mercedes stolen along with his luggage and all his lecture notes. The German panicked, and Director Zichichi led him back inside to give him a glass or two of good Sicilian wine. Emerging an hour later, there sat the Mercedes. Zichichi had ties everywhere. The local Mafia had found the thieves. Then they kindly returned the car, washed, waxed and fully fueled—an impressively offhand way to show real power. Sid always loved telling this tale.

I had given a lecture series there in astrophysics, suspecting that the true appeal of Erice was the meal chits they gave out for attendees. Good in many of the best restaurants, these allowed for wine with the meal, no questions asked. This single gesture made the afternoon sessions either lively or dead, depending on the quality and quantity of the wine. But Sidney avoided the wine, focusing on clarifying his own lectures right up to the last minute. His careful, insightful summaries of the state of knowledge in field theory became famous and appeared as a book devoted solely to them.

One of the Sidneyfest attendees who got his doctorate at Harvard remarked, “How do you do physics at Harvard? You go to Witten to give you a problem to work on. You go to Coleman to tell you how to solve it. Then you go to Weinberg to write you a reference letter.” Ed Witten is the Einstein figure of string theory and much else. Weinberg won the Nobel for what we now call the Standard Model.

Though I’ve never met Weinberg, I learned a lot of physics just working through a Weinberg calculation he did as a toss-off for a classified project I worked on in the late 1960s, given the problem by Edward Teller, who had hired me in 1967. Weinberg’s footprint in the calculations was impressive. He came a decade ahead of me in the profession and I rather regretted showing that the method he studied would not work in reality. But physics isn’t just about getting everything to work; it’s about the truth. Weinberg was no sharper than Sid, but he happened upon an insight that proved out true quite swiftly. There is a lot of luck in science; many of the brilliant just don’t hit quite the right problem. Sid won prizes, several Sidneyfest attendees remarked, but not the big ones.

There were many Sid stories. One was about being at a physics meeting where Stephen Hawking spoke up from his wheelchair. This was around 1976, when Stephen could barely control his throat, and struggled to make his points in his semi-unintelligible way. His comment contained a detailed, abstruse mathematical argument and went on for minutes. Sid said that he was tempted to reply, “That’s easy for you to say,” but held his tongue.

Another Sid story: A mathematician and an engineer are sitting in on a string theory lecture. The engineer is struggling, while the mathematician is swimming along with no problem. Finally the engineer asks, “How do you do it? How do you visualize these 11-dimensional spaces?” The mathematician says, “It’s easy: first I visualize an n-dimensional space, then I set n equal to 11.”

At the fest Sidney could not deal with the crowd, so he watched the proceedings on TV in a small room off to the side. At the end he appeared before the crowd but declined to comment, saying later, “At my age you tend to emit a lot of gas, and I’d rather not.”


Rather than his physics, I remember best Sid’s brilliant wit. He once remarked about dopey plot twists, “The one good thing about stupidity is that it leads to adventure.”  I’ve often thought that applies to life as a whole, too.

Bob Silverberg recalled in a fanzine, “While traveling in France in the early 1970s, Sidney unexpectedly contracted a case of what turned out to be crabs. ‘Unexpectedly’ because this is customarily a venereal disease, and he had been a model of chastity throughout his trip. The offending organisms must have been concealed in the bedding of his hotel room, he decided, and so he had suffered a case of punishment without the crime. But during the trip he had not, however, remained true to the dietary restrictions imposed by the religious doctrines of his forefathers; and, he said, after visiting a French doctor and having his ailment diagnosed for what it was, he was granted a vision of his Orthodox grandfather rising up in wrath before him and thundering, ‘Thou hast eaten crustaceans, child, and now thou shalt be devoured by crustaceans thyself!’”

Carol Carr remembers that Sid’s French was limited, and that a literal translation of what he told the doctor was, “Small animals are eating my penis.”

In the fevered height of the 1970s, when even theoretical physicists had gotten the hip message of the 1960s, Sid had a tailored purple suit. He wore it with stylish aplomb, smiling his owlish smiles below twinkling eyes, pretending to not notice the flagrant color. Once, walking across Harvard Yard, we encountered a student who had a question about a career in physics. I wondered how Sid would reply, since I usually gave a long, windy answer. Sid simply swept a hand grandly down his tailored flanks and said, “Study hard, have original ideas, and someday you, too, may wear a purple suit.”

Carol Carr also recalls:  “Sid made the expression ‘enjoying oneself’ a concrete, observable act, and he would sometimes be caught shamelessly indulging in it.  Once, at a party, he had just said something funny to a bunch of people.  After the punchline he walked out of the room, leaving them all in mid-grin.  Several minutes later I happened to notice him, alone in a corner, still chortling to himself.  What he’d said to those people had a long half-life, and Sid was a bonafide, dyed-in-the-wool appreciator.  If a good joke happened to be his own, he wasn’t about to apply the doctrine of false modesty and let it die before its time.”

When his physics department suddenly needed someone to fill in for an ill colleague, they asked Sid if he could teach a field theory class that the energetic colleague had scheduled for 8 a.m. Sid was a notorious night owl who often had to rouse his dinner guests to go home at a mere 3 a.m. He relished the pleasures of watching the sun come up while putting on pajamas and others stirred. Still, he considered. He felt that he did have an obligation to his department. “I’m sorry,” he finally said, “I just don’t think I could stay up that late.”

He wrote a great sendup of the space program:

“Once I gained access to Pioneer 10, it was the work of a moment to substitute for NASA’s plaque my own, which read, “Make ten exact copies of this plaque with your name at the bottom of the list and send them to ten intelligent races of your acquaintance. At the end of four billion years, your name will reach the top of the list and you will rule the galaxy.”

If only A. E. van Vogt had thought of this economical idea!

Of course, Sid had his oddities. He was the worst driver I ever knew, distracted by conversation with his passengers, oblivious to the screech and shouts of near-accidents. Marta Randall remarked on how when she was the lead car on the several-car trip to  a restaurant, she always saw Sid in her rear view mirror in profile, attentive to his passengers.

But then, Feynman considered dental hygiene to be a superstition, despite his rotten teeth. Einstein hated socks.  We have our foibles.

Sid did indeed look a lot like Einstein, but he loved SF whereas Einstein deplored it. Lest SF distort pure science and give people the false illusion of scientific understanding, Einstein recommended complete abstinence from any type of science fiction. “I never think of the future. It comes soon enough,” he said.

Now, though, Sid can’t concentrate enough to read SF. For decades he took SF seriously but not solemnly, and his insights led to his role as a book reviewer for F&SF—the only non-literary person ever to serve. His F&SF book reviews skewered the second rate and revealed the excellences of the able. In a review of a novel that did not make the grade in a nonetheless ambitious area, he simply remarked, “This book fills a much needed vacancy in our field.”

Sid is just the opposite. As he fades from us, his departure from our midst leaves a vacancy that echoes, unfillable.

—Greg Benford