Abstract Thinker

I had heard two stories about Professor of Physics Jan Tobochnik, one of which turned out to be mostly true.

That one involved the surprise of college officials surrounding his arrival (let’s describe it as minimalist) at Amherst (Massachusetts) College. The 18-year-old Tobochnik had traveled from Philadelphia alone and by bus, accompanied by two large suitcases he had to schlep two blocks from the bus stop to campus. Where were his parents? “In Philadelphia,” he said with some surprise of his own. “Where else would they be?”

“Well, I don’t remember saying that,” says Tobochnik today. “But I guess my entry was a bit atypical, even for 1971.”

The second story—physics a distant second career choice behind his desire to be shortstop for the Philadelphia Phillies—is completely false. “Though I did know a professor at Cornell [Tobochnik’s graduate school] who did have to choose between physics and playing in the minor leagues,” he says.

Does Tobochnik at least remain a lifelong Phillies fan? “I try hard to,” he confesses. “But this year they’re pretty bad, so I’m kind of agnostic.”

Would acuity in physics better serve the science of fielding or hitting? Tobochnik ponders a moment or two. “Probably fielding, where there would be more time (perhaps marginally more) to think about the application of physics,” he ponders. “Some physics might apply to a player’s stance in the box or nuances in the bat swing, but the ball is on you so fast.” He brightens: “There’s a surprising amount of scientific literature published on physics and baseball. I read a lot of it in the journal I edited [The American Journal of Physics].”

This is a man who loves questions, no matter how far afield (or, “from left field”) they may seem. Jan Tobochnik is BeLight’s first physicist to endure the “Lighten Up” interview.


What’s the best song ever recorded?

I don’t know. I’m bad with popular culture questions. I like the Beatles. Is “Let it Be” one of theirs? Let’s go with that.

What’s your favorite childhood fairy tale or story?

I can’t really remember any, certainly nothing before the age of four-and-a-half. There is a story about me that I don’t recall but find interesting. In Philadelphia our house was near Route 1, a very busy 12-lane road. One day, around the age of 3, I apparently climbed from my crib and took a walk. I was found several blocks from our house at a drug store. It was lucky I didn’t try to cross Route 1.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?

I’m an atheist. I can’t answer this one.

What’s your favorite word?


What’s your least favorite word?

Generally speaking, any word that disparages people or groups.

What turns you on?

Abstract thinking! One of the most important things I try to do at K is cultivate in students an appreciation for abstract thinking.

What turns you off?


What sound do you love?

The sound of ocean waves on a shoreline.

What sound do you hate?

Fingernails on a chalkboard.

What profession other than yours would you like to attempt?

I would like to be a politician because I think that work is so important. And yet I wouldn’t want to be a politician today because the current state of our public discourse is so ugly and polemic.

What profession would you not like to participate in?

Anything on an assembly line. It would be too repetitive.

What’s been a GREAT MOMENT in your liberal arts learning?

At Cornell I was working on a project that had to do with a theory of melting that was developed by two renowned physicists, Kosterlitz and Thouless. I remember one day having a prolonged argument about that theory with a visitor to the department. I didn’t know who he was, but my advisor later told me it was Kosterlitz. Had I known that, we wouldn’t have had the discussion that we had.

Who’s the person (living or dead) with whom you’d most like to spend a lunch hour?

Elizabeth Warren. She’s positioned to move politics in a direction in which I’d like to see it go. I would like to know what she’s thinking.

What memory from childhood still surprises you?

I attended a big public junior high school in Philadelphia. More than 1,000 students in three grades. I was the first or second fastest sprinter in that school. That didn’t last into high school. But the memory still surprises me.

What is your favorite curse word?

The one I use the most is full-of-shit.

What is your favorite hobby?

I don’t think I really have one, as such. I like to read. I read about sports. I play racquetball. I play bridge. But I don’t really consider any of those hobbies.

What is your favorite comedy movie?

“A Serious Man” is a fascinating combination of hilarious and dark. I also liked “Brother Where Art Thou.”

What local, regional, national, or world event has affected you most?

The civil rights movement and the Vietnam War shaped how I think.

If a cow laughed, would milk come out of her nose?


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