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Clyde and Bonnie: a Tale of TRIUMF

August 2017

Years ago Richard Feynman's books showed that Physicists can have a fun/mischievous side that expresses itself in pranks. More recently the success of "Big Bang Theory" has explored what we may be up to besides discovering the fundamentals of how the universe works. I've always considered the joking side to Physicists to be obvious. Take quarks for example - what kind of a name is that? Biologists would have given some long latin descriptive name. Physicists decided not to even try to come up with names actually describing them or their attributes. Quarks have flavor, color... and no you can't taste or see them. Then there's basic mechanics: rate of change of position is velocity, rate of change of velocity is acceleration, but what comes after that? Rate of change of acceleration is "jerk". That is descriptive, but what about beyond that? "Snap, crackle, and pop", believe it or not. You're welcome Kellogg's.

So what about pranks, what have I seen and taken part in over the years? Mostly they'd only be funny to the people who were there at the time, but I was involved in one which went a bit wrong and may be worth retelling:

beamline diagram showing the location of Clyde and Bonnie
Beamline diagram from The Meson Factories, p. 370

In 1982 I was a Summer Student at a particle accelerator, TRIUMF, working in the Beamlines Group. This group is not the Physicists per se, it is the technicians responsible for the equipment along the beam line. One day I was given instructions for stenciling information onto two magnets that were being installed. Don't think fridge magnet, think step ladder to get up to where you do the stenciling. These things are moved with a crane and aligned with the help of a surveyor. So various information was to be painted on using stencils, I believe on the top and two sides. That makes 6 sets of labels. There weren't enough stencils to do it all in one go, I'd have to decide how to do it in bits. So far pretty mundane.

Then 2 technicians explained the challenging part to me. They said something like "we are from the Beamlines Magnet Naming Committee" (which I assume to have been an ad hoc committee with two members). "We are tired of working on things with mundane technical names like 'spin precession dipole', so you are going to label this one as Bonnie and that one as Clyde. We don't know if this will be appreciated or not so you'll need to find a way to be finished before anyone notices". That part felt like a bit of a challenge. There seemed to be a lot of people all around all the time, including the Director and other bigwigs. This was 35 years ago, I don't remember much of the details, but juggling limited stencils and putting on the official information interspersed with the names, I tried to put the names on in the least looked at locations (top, opposite side to the door) first, with the facing the door labels being last. That seemed to work, if anybody noticed while I was doing it they didn't stop me (or even comment) at the time.

In fact, the lack of anybody seeming to notice at all seemed a bit disconcerting after all that anxiety about not being caught until I was done. Then at a talk given to the summer students I finally heard mention of it among the things that had been accomplished that summer. The speaker pointed out that someone had put names onto these magnets when they were installed, but had done it from the perspective of someone walking into the hall and seeing the labels Bonnie on the left at Clyde on the right. However, he said that isn't the Physicist's perspective. Our persepective is going down the beamline. So the magnets are actually "Clyde and Bonnie". No reprimand, just a bit of mockery!

I've wondered if these names actually stuck or not, and if the Beamlines Magnet Naming Committee had carried on or quietly disbanded in disgrace. A bit of Googling shows the names got used by at least some people. For example, later that year (or maybe spring of the following year) in a 1982 Progress Report, page 12. I noted that they call the magnets "Clyde and Bonnie". In fact, any paper I found (such as shown below) uses Clyde and Bonnie. So our legacy from this prank seems to be not the names themselves, but the order in which we put them.

mention of Clyde and Bonnie

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