The Word Game

I don’t know why, but something just reminded me of a silly game I invented to make lectures more interesting. Probably it’s because the students have started coming back after the summer break. I started playing this game at one of the Erice schools run by Norma Sanchez, but it’s a long time since then and I can’t remember which one in particular it was. I never told Professor Sanchez this was going on in case she thought it was too flippant. I’ve always been scared of her since she loomed towards me and scribbled all over my transparencies at the end of one of my lectures because she disagreed with my use of the word “theory” (instead of model).

The thing about this and other schools of its ilk is that there are a bunch of invited experts giving short courses of lectures (maybe 4-6) to an audience of graduate students and young postdoctoral researchers. It’s quite intensive and I felt that it needed something to take away some of the strain.

The Word Game is played by one lecturer at a time. The other lecturers give the nominated individual a word which he/she must weave into his/her next lecture. There is no restriction on the word, and generally the more obscure it is the better. In the advanced version of the game the word is given to the lecturer immediately before the lecture (in a sealed envelope). However, for beginners I recommend giving the word at least a few hours beforehand to let them think a bit how to get the target word into their talk.

The audience have been told that the lecturer is going to include a target word and their job is to spot which word it is. If they succeed then the lecturer loses and has to pay a forfeit (perhaps a round of drinks for the successful spotters). If the students don’t get the right word then the lecturer wins and he gets a reward (probably also of alcoholic form). If the lecturer fails to include the word at all they to buy drinks for the lecturers as well as living out the rest of their days in shame. A league table is kept as the school goes on and the lecturer with the most successful word insertions at the end is declared the winner.

Choice of target word is tricky. If you make it too mundane then it is impossible to spot and if it’s too bizarre then it’s too easy. However, the former case can be avoided to some extent by insisting that the word occurs only once in the lecture. In the latter case the lecturer can use the device of introducing sundry other random complicated words to throw the audience off the scent of a tricky word. I generally award bonus marks if the word is embedded elegantly in the talk rather than hidden in a cloud of other words.

Not all lecturers want to play the game of course and some are more successful than others. I’d like to single out Brian Schmidt for his outstanding performance at one school, smoothly interpolating the word AUTOCLAVE into a lecture on Type Ia Supernovae in such a way that it went completely unnoticed by the students. On the other hand, I have also to mention that Rocky Kolb, misguidedly going for the advanced option during his first ever attempt at the game, completely failing to get the word AARDVARK into his lecture. In fact he insisted on being given the word in a sealed envelope after he arrived at the lecturer’s podium, starting his lecture with the words “May I have the envelope please?” That’s what you get for being cocky, Rocky.

I’ve always managed to get the words in myself, and did once successfully conceal ONOMATOPOEIA in a talk about galaxy formation. On the other hand, my attempt to get CANDELABRA into a talk about higher-order correlation functions was easily – and expensively – rumbled.

7 Responses to “The Word Game”

  1. Adrian Burd Says:

    Hmmm….autcolave in a lecture on Type Ia supernovae? I’d like to have seen that!

    Can you change the word e.g onomatopoeic as opposed to onomatopeia?

    Adrian (who suffers from the obnoxious alarm on the autoclave in the room down the hall!)

  2. This is not really related to your post, but it’s funny you would mention Erice, because ever since I found your blog – which was about 3 days ago via Cosmic Variance – I kept wondering where did I know your name from… I tried to find the participants list to the two schools I had been to in Erice, one in 1999 and the other one in 2000, without luck. I was, however, impressed in the process by the school industry that happens in that little town.

    Mentioning Norma Sanchez and Rocky Kolb reminded me of his intervention at the end of her first lecture, in which if memory helps he was basically saying that she was absolutely incomprehensible (I’m sure, remembering her slides, that she could have easily hidden ANY word on them)… She tried to answer something that was starting with “As Rocky Kolb mentioned…”, and he immediately reacted “Edward William Kolb to you!” Ah, those were the days 🙂

    Loved your blog, bookmarked it in my Bookmarks Bar (which I reserve for only those things that I find really interesting, like the web interface for my Fermilab e-mail and the local weather web page…)


  3. Cristina

    I was definitely at the Erice school in 2000 called Phase Transitions in the Early Universe: Theory and Observations ; I checked by looking at the proceedings.


  4. Peter,

    thank you for putting me out of misery 🙂 You must have the added advantage of having a copy of the proceedings then, or at least remembering the exact name of the school. Or at the very least remembering what the school was about (I thought the one in 2000 was about cosmic rays… oh well, close enough)

    Then you probably missed the shouting match between Norma and Rocky, I think that happened in 1999. It was a fine moment… 😀


  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    It’s extremely aardvark calibrating this telescope correctly…

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    What did you do – draw some kind of diagram showing hierarchical relations between correlation functions and suggest that it resembles a candelabra?

    • Anton,

      That was basically it. I was talking about gravitational evolution and merging, so I drew a kind of merger tree and commented that it looked a bit like a candelabra…


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