The other day, while we were walking from my office back to the lab, one of my students asked me a question that’s perfect for a Dorky Poll:
What’s the coolest single word you’ve encountered in physics?
His vote was for “antineutrino,” but I’ve got to go with “counterintuitive,” as in “Stimulated Raman Adiabatic Passage uses a counterintuitive pulse sequence to excite atoms without populating the intermediate state,” or “the idea of making atoms cold by shining laser light on them is somewhat counterintuitive.”
“Counterintuitive” captures a lot of what I enjoy most about physics. We work with a small number of very general rules that govern the way the world works, and those rules don’t have a great deal of flexibility. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t surprises, though– if you’re clever enough, you can find ways to exploit those rules to give you results that seem to fly in the face of common sense. And yet, those results are every bit as inevitable as the common-sense result that objects dropped near the surface of the earth will fall under the influence of gravity.
That’s what I find cool in physics, and so I think “counter-intuitive” is the coolest single word I’ve run into in the field.
What’s your favorite physics word?