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MIT staff blogger Matt McGann '00

Physics Prof. Peter Fisher on Conan by Matt McGann '00

A freshman physics professor helps the late night talk show host break a record. [with YouTube videos!]

You may know Conan O’Brien, host of the popular late night talk show Late Night with Conan O’Brien. For the past month, Conan’s show has been airing without the benefit of writers, due to the strike (soon to be settled?) by the Writers Guild of America. Without writers, the show has resorted to some fairly ridiculous ways to kill time, including an ongoing feud with Stephen Colbert (resolved in a battle royale), a German disco light shows, a visit to the doctor, a turtle race, and ring spinning.

In what has been very compelling television, Conan has been spinning his wedding ring on his desk, trying to see for how long he can get it to spin. He has been trying in vain to beat his record of 41 seconds.

Clearly, this is a physics problem. And when there’s an important physics problem, who do you call? That’s right — MIT.

So last night, MIT Physics Professor Peter Fisher appeared on Late Night to help Conan finally beat the record.

As Conan explained on the air, the show called Prof. Fisher “out of the blue.” Nevermind that his principle work is on dark matter, not really related to the ring spinning — but who cares. He’s still an MIT Physicist.

To solve the problem, Prof. Fisher asked many other for help, including his students in freshman physics class (“50 pulsating brains at my disposal”), MIT researcher Jocelyn Monroe, and his daughter.

My favorite exchange of the evening comes right before they try to break the record.


Conan: [with sarcasm] A lot of people, many Americans have cancelled their plans tonight and are watching right now.


Prof. Fisher: This is an important problem! The great physicist Richard Feynman [MIT ’39] in thinking about a problem like this solved quantum electrodynamics.

Conan: Yes. So maybe by thinking about this problem we will solve a much larger problem. How to travel through time!

Prof. Fisher: We solved that. My colleague Eddie Farhi worked that out, in fact.

Conan: Well of course. Probably by spinning a ring.

Prof. Fisher: Well, you can do it but the universe explodes afterwards.

Conan: Big whoop. Small price to pay to get to meet Lincoln, you know?


Also, the vocabulary word of the day is nutate:


nutate: verb – rock, sway, or nod; usually involuntarily


Because the segment ran 14 minutes (14 minutes!), the YouTube video is broken up into two parts below. Check it out, and enjoy!

In the end, Prof. Fisher’s teflon solution helped Conan break the record, setting a new mark of 51 seconds!

This spring, you can see Prof. Fisher teaching 8.02 (freshman physics: electricity & magnetism) every Monday and Wednesday from 11am to 1pm and every Friday from 11am to noon in Room 26-152. And you can read online about his research with the Dark Matter Time Projection Chamber (currently employing four very lucky UROPs!).

36 responses to “Physics Prof. Peter Fisher on Conan”

  1. asm says:

    “Well, you can do it but the universe explodes afterwards.”

    This has got to be the best filler they’ve ever done. I’m kind of hoping, in some crazy, twisted way, that the strike doesn’t get resolved for a little longer. Maybe they can bring Walter Lewin on or something — now THAT would be funny.

    Oh, and a note to all those “FIRST!” posters out there: getting the first post is NOT THAT BIG OF A DEAL. In fact, posting just to say “FIRST!” is not really as exhilirating as it seems, and you’ll most likely embarrass yourself in the process.

  2. Anonymous says:


  3. Nick says:

    That was the most awesomely useless use of Physics ever.

  4. This was one of the best Conan interviews I’ve seen in a while…it had science, silliness, and, at the end, one dazed professor. He seemed a bit taken aback by all the hubbub he’d caused.

    I’m a bit surprised that, being a Harvard alum, Conan didn’t call up one of their professors. But I’m not complaining.

    Go Tech!

  5. Anonymous says:

    The better physics problem would be to get a Brass rat to spin for that long.

  6. Anonymous says:

    ZOMG I have the same lab notebook!!

  7. Jarey says:

    Wow, haha, their exchange on him being a Patriot is great. “Don’t hit the man, he’s got glasses.”

  8. Anonymous says:

    It’s nutating!!! lol great segment

  9. adam ionescu says:

    he gave it extra energy mid-spin :(
    I demand a re-spin!

  10. Laura says:

    I love how, once the professor mentioned lubricants, the audience started giggling, while I immediately thought of graphite and teflon.

  11. lulu says:

    he didn’t give it any torque. the spin is good raspberry

    also, this video made my day and I’ve shown it to everyone on my hall. also, this is funny, too:

  12. Tanmay says:

    Hahaha, that was great! I am sure this work will find a good use someday.

    And I figured out that I am not very good at spinning a ring. 7.8 seconds. :-|

  13. milena '11 says:

    Hahaha I love how Fisher is just sitting there with this WTF look on his face while Conan’s jumping up and down and doing pushups.

  14. I wonder what they planned on doing with all the balloons, confetti, and dancing guys if the they hadn’t broken the record….

    And unrelated to ring spinning…Stephen Colbert clearly won that melee, he’s the only true talk show host of the three :-p

  15. Kevin Xu says:

    Wow I honestly can’t believe I watched all that. lol too much awesomeness

  16. Sam R. '12 says:

    LOL hilarious video, I wish i could have seen live. Loved the part with the math, the berkeley thing, and when they celebrated at the end. Prof. Fisher’s face was priceless (im adding it to my bookmarks on youtube).
    -sam r.

  17. rko says:

    On the first day of 8.02 this term Prof. Fischer gave his spiel about not getting into MIT and going to Berkeley. That was definitely a pretty fun class.

    We were going over vector fields and had to get up and walk around to simulate particles in fields — he put one on the board where all field lines led to the door. Everyone was like “uhhhhh…” and Prof. Fisher announced “BREAK TIME!”

  18. Isshak says:

    I am showing this to my friends who still believe science is not cool ^^

  19. Steph says:

    I really wanted to watch that last night but it was on at 12:30.

    The lubrication test is the best part.

  20. Ginger says:

    This is so excellent! I bookmarked it too. Also, thank you and the rest of the bloggers for the Valentine’s Day card! Things like this make me sure MIT is the school for me =)

  21. Chris T says:

    I agree with Milena & Sam R.

    Professor Fisher’s reaction was perfect. Specifically when 3 dancers were behind him and Conan was going crazy in front. (starting 7:45 of video 2) Funny!

  22. Susan says:

    I actually feel a little bad for Professor Fisher. “It took you two pages to find out that air drag was insignificant?” No, it took him two pages to *prove* it. Sheesh.

  23. Shruthi says:

    Man, thats some way of learning physics :D… I love it!!!!!!!!!

  24. I agree with Milena & Sam R.

    People believe that it will be reality for the ordinary people to travel through time!, due to the MIT solution. I watched the show and found it both funny and inspirational.

  25. Anonymous says:

    lol,lol too much awesomeness.Yay.

  26. Kim says:

    I’m a bit surprised that, being a Harvard alum, Conan didn’t call up one of their professors. But I’m not complaining.

  27. Alecia says:

    What? No more video?

  28. Timur says:

    While I feel proud as a part of DMTPC, I should also mention those Youtube videos, while awesome, violate a whole slew of copyright laws and will likely be taken down soon. :(

  29. Timur says:

    Aaaand it’s down. :(

  30. Deusse says:

    One problem though; my application fee waiver request remains unprocessed, too bad!

  31. Megan says:

    I love how, once the professor mentioned lubricants, the audience started giggling, while I immediately thought of graphite and teflon.

  32. Hyun Jin says:

    The video’s gone :(
    Youtube’s gotten uncannily fast at taking these down.

  33. aleksey says:

    Very funny!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I couldn’t stop laughing!

    I completely agree with whoever said that the first posts have got to stop.

  34. Blake Stacey says:

    Working copies of the videos can be found here.

  35. Timur says:

    Dear Hiliheiff,

    You fail at the Internet. Congratulations on your idiocy.