Thursday, March 18, 2004

There's a Method to His Madness

How the Onion keeps finding inspiration week-in week-out is beyond me.

STANFORD, CA—Known throughout the community for his verbal outbursts and his shopping cart full of trash, area street denizen "Cosmic Stan" must have studied advanced physics at some point, sources reported Monday.

"Where's my cheese? Don't take my rowboat! Got no room!" the lunatic screamed from his regular spot near the Campus Drive bus stop. "I need space! Gimme space! Infinite dimensional separable Hilbert space!"

Though his rants seem nonsensical to most passersby, some astute listeners say they contain evidence of higher learning.

"I'd always see him around that bus stop, dressed in his ragged wool clothes, duct-taped shoes, and that plastic sheeting covered over with symbols drawn in magic-marker," Stanford Ph.D. candidate James Willard said. "Then, a few days ago, he was out there waving his tin-foil wand at random strangers, and I heard him yell, 'I demand that you buy me an ice-cream cone! My third-favorite flavor is strange! My second-favorite is top! My favorite flavor is anti-charmed!' Suddenly, I realized the guy was talking about quarks."

Willard said he spent the next several minutes listening to Cosmic Stan's rant.

"Mixed in with the usual stuff about CIA mind-control beams, talking dogs, and monkey-people, I heard him mention beta decay, instantons, density matrix, and subspaces of n-dimensional Riemannian manifolds," Willard said. "I'm not sure where he got it, but he definitely seems to have had extensive schooling in theoretical physics. Man, what could've happened to him?"

Stanford theoretical physicist Carl Lundergaard seconded Willard's theory on the loonball.

"He's definitely had some advanced training, though I'm not surprised that it went unnoticed for so long," Lundergaard said. "It's hard for the layperson to differentiate schizophrenic ramblings like 'Modernity chunk where the sink goes flying on the ping-pang' from legitimate terminology like 'Unstable equilibria lie on the nodal points of a separatrix in phase space.'"

Lundergaard said he first became intrigued by Cosmic Stan in December 1999, when the homeless man threw a chicken bone at him and said, "Components of the Weyl conformal curvature tensor." (emphasis added)

Yes, I think that highlighted bit is key here. If a lunatic were to dress in a nice suit and tie but kept spouting the same nonsense, how would the average Joe be able to tell him apart from a perfectly sane if somewhat self-absorbed scientist going on about his favorite subject? The experience of listening in on a conversation in some lunatic's private language is one I'm sure many a bewildered freshman struggling with calculus can relate to.

As an aside, I feel compelled to mention that a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I once enjoyed(?) the acquaintance of the infamous Archimedes Plutonium, who liked, as did I, to hang around the Dartmouth mathematics department's library. The most noticeable difference between the two of us at the time was that he was a dishwasher at the Hanover Inn, while I was merely an undergraduate. Needless to say, I found his ramblings, such as they were (he being of the taciturn variety of lunatic) rather less entertaining and erudite than those of the fictional "Cosmic Stan" detailed above. Here was one case in which the reality did actually fall short of the imaginary alternative.