Murder by Theory: Tales from the Ivory Tower’s Dark Side

Retraction Watch readers may recall Eve Armstrong’s April Fool’s preprints modeling a potential prom date and proving that it was, indeed, Colonel Mustard with a candlestick. We’re pleased — no fooling, and a few weeks early — to present an excerpt from Armstrong’s new work of fiction, Murder by Theory: Two Tales from the Ivory Tower’s Dark Side.

FACULTY MEETING MINUTES

Department of Physics

Arlington University

Date: 2023 September 5, Tuesday

Time: 11:00 am

Location: 329 Hieronymus B. Cottonfield Hall of Physical Sciences, 4th-floor conference room

Present:

  • Ezekiel Gold (Zeek): distinguished professor and department chair
  • Simone Amiri: tenured associate professor (19 minutes late)
  • Hakim Abargil: associate professor, soon to be tenured if he doesn’t torpedo his own review (17 minutes late)
  • Harvey Gadsby: distinguished professor but you’d never know based on appearance (25 minutes late)
  • Leon Scharf: postdoctoral fellow who’s not supposed to attend faculty meetings
  • Alice Jackson: new assistant professor (25 minutes late)
  • Louis Janvier: assistant professor.

Absent:

Agenda:

Determine whether instructors for Physics 109 should agree to normalize the choice of textbook across all sections taught, beginning in the spring semester.

Summary:

I, Louis Janvier (pronounced jan vyé with the stress placed on the second syllable), first-year assistant professor, will record the faculty meeting minutes in the Department of Physics this semester. I am happy to do it. In fact, I volunteered to do it, in order to receive the one credit of teaching release that accompanies the position. Further, my expansive vocabulary, nimble and dexterous fingers, and outstanding aptitude for creative writing instills in me a sense of responsibility to perform the role, as these skills render me more fit for it than any of my colleagues. To be clear, nobody forced me to take this on. Taking these  minutes was entirely  my choice, as I do not take orders and am not a trained monkey. My colleagues respect me. I have been making unique and creative contributions to this department for nearly one full year.

In the interest of tact, my official notes will be an edited version of these, as per the strike-throughs.

Eve Armstrong

This semester, faculty meetings begin promptly at 11 o’clock am local time, Department Chair Ezekiel – “Zeek” – Gold presiding. Zeek typically assigns someone in our administrative office to send out an electronic announcement confirming each meeting, as meetings do not necessarily occur each week; for example, if nothing important is pressing. Usually a meeting does occur, but Zeek is conscientious about everyone’s time and tries to avoid convening unnecessarily. If we receive no weekly confirmation, that indicates that no meeting will occur. As many of us are worn a bit haggard by meetings in this frenetic day and age, we all appreciate Zeek’s consideration in this matter.

Last year we met at 1pm, which was the widespread preference as it meant that lunch would appear, grace à Best Pizza. The Dean’s advent of weekly senate meetings, however, forced us to reschedule. Zeek has graciously continued the catering, even though 11am feels a tad early for pizza. Zeek did request breakfast pizzas, but evidently Best Pizza is not familiar with such a concept. Zeek did his best, however, by ordering one cheese only, which – one could convincingly argue – can be considered a breakfast pizza. Simply omitting the tomato sauce renders the meal more breakfast-like, as many a stomach find it laborious to manage high acidity early in the day.

I entered the conference room at 10:55. Zeek and Leon were already present. I was disappointed to see that the pizza was not. I had done my exercise two hour prior and my body needed calories.

At 10:57, Zeek took his seat on his signature yoga ball at the head of the table, beaming his signature boyish beam, and commenced bouncing as he enquired how our day was going so far. Leon and I both replied that it was going pleasingly, and thanked him for asking.

At 11am, Zeek expressed mild irritation that the other department faculty had not arrived yet. At 11:05, he expressed mounting irritation. At 11:10 he expressed downright wonder, and began to message the missing faculty. At 11:11 he received a reply from Harvey that Ester, the administrative assistant whom the Women’s Studies department recently transferred to us, had told him that the meeting was scheduled for 1pm. Zeek soon received replies from Hakim and Alice to the same effect. I noted to him that Ester had sent me a personalized email specifying the correct time, 11am. As I said this, I realized that Ester had written an individual message to each of us, specifying 11am to me and 1pm to the others – rather than simply sending a single message to all of us together. What else does that woman do with her time?

How Leon managed to be on time, I haven’t any idea. He is a postdoctoral researcher, not faculty, and thus does not receive notices about faculty meetings. He’s not supposed to be here at all; in fact, I believe it violates a University policy on confidentiality. But no one has conjured the courage to say anything.

At 11:17 and 11:19, Hakim and Simone, respectively, joined us. Both apologized for their tardiness but noted that it was not fair to ascribe it to a fault of their own, as they had, in good faith, been following Ester’s notice. Zeek agreed. Zeek asked them how their day was going so far. Simone replied that it was fine, thank you. Hakim replied that his landlord has charged him a 15 percent fee for having paid the rent on his flat nine days late, and that his stomach felt funny, most likely due to some bad plums at breakfast. Zeek said that he was sorry to hear that.

Then Zeek said that we would wait for Harvey to arrive before beginning the meeting. Simone asked why we had to wait for Harvey, and Zeek replied, “Because Harvey will talk about physics. None of the rest of you ever want to talk about physics during these meetings.” Simone, the only cool head in this room, replied that we talk enough about physics, every day ad nauseum, and that there is no need to discuss it further during a scheduled meeting; rather, that the purpose of meetings is to discuss administrative matters that otherwise no one has the stomach to discuss. A few barely perceptible smirks indicated unspoken agreement with Simone. 

Zeek had paused his bouncing while Simone spoke. He considered her in silence for a moment, then turned to his laptop and resumed bouncing. Most others now also turned to laptops, which they had brought along in the event that the meeting turned tedious or ignorable or both.

At 11:25 Harvey entered alongside first-year assistant professor Alice. Harvey was bellowing to Alice, “How many times do I have to tell you: you can reallocate discretionary indirect.” (Note that a bellow constitutes Harvey’s normal speaking voice. It matches his personality appropriately.) Alice ap- peared mildly intimidated, albeit that is her resting expression. Both took seats.

Zeek asked Alice how her day was going so far. Alice replied that she was applying for a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that is designed for new assistant professors, and that the process involved vexing points of confusion. Zeek grinned good-naturedly and said that “vexing points of confusion” was the NSF’s modus operandi (I believe that he had intended that comment to be interpreted as a joke; it is difficult to convey that on the page and so I note it explicitly).

Simone, perhaps also responding to Alice’s battle weary appearance, told her that a record of applying for grants will reflect well on her once she applies for tenure. Alice meekly wondered why everybody keeps bringing up tenure. Simone then lectured her for a solid minute on tenure, academia’s “coveted system of job security,” that carries with it “complete freedom of expression and intellectual pursuit that you will not realize can exist until you have it.” Alice appeared unmoved.

Zeek suggested that we begin the meeting, and simultaneously Hakim said to Harvey that, in fact, typically one cannot reallocate discretionary indirect beyond a threshold of about ten percent of one’s original budget specification. Simone agreed with Hakim, which gave rise to a heated argument.

The argument involved Harvey, Simone, and Hakim, although it was difficult to hear Simone and Hakim. (I anticipate that Hakim will grow just as loud as Harvey once he gets tenure.)  Zeek looked on with a mildly anxious smile while intermittently glancing at the time. Alice and I abstained because we are inexperienced with federal grants. (Most new faculty would probably abstain from such a discussion, whether the reason be terror at the prospect of having to soon understand the conversation, embarrassment over having applied for a grant and been denied, or exhaustion from having applied for a grant and been awarded.)

Leon asked what discretionary funds are, and no one answered him.  Although no one has worked up the nerve to ask him to leave, we have adopted an unspoken agreement never to encourage his participa- tion. He appears to be catching on, albeit gradually. He fell silent again but listened intently and took furious notes, as usual. I feel a tad badly for him, so eager to absorb this information. With faculty jobs as sparse as they are, his chances of obtaining one are not good.

After twenty-eight minutes, Harvey abruptly ended the argument by asking Zeek when we will discuss the plan for hiring a new tenure-track assistant professor, which the Dean has approved. Zeek took this discontinuous subject change as an opportunity to suggest, for approximately the fifth time, “Let’s begin the meeting,” and the fifth time was the charm. The others settled back into seats in acquiescence.

Zeek began, “Today’s topic is whether to normalize the textbook for Physics 109.  Specifically, we might want to all adopt either Fundamentals of Physics by Halliday, Resnick, and Walker, published by Wiley, or University Physics by Young and Freedman, published by Pearson.”

Harvey interrupted to wonder aloud how Wiley had managed to publish a new edition of Fundamentals of Physics given that Walker, one of the three authors, is dead now. I was relatively certain that Walker is not dead, and said as much. Harvey insisted that Walker died of pancreatic cancer in April. So it appeared that an internet search was warranted, which Alice deftly handled within seconds: Walker is not dead. Alice said to Harvey that perhaps he was confusing Walker with either of his co-authors, Halliday or Resnick, both of whom are dead. Harvey considered this information and then repeated his wonder about Wiley’s new edition, given that indeed, not one, but two of the co-authors are dead.

Zeek cleared his throat and began again: “Now, regarding the question of textbook renormalization.  I understand that to do so would be to muffle the academic freedom that it’s important for faculty to have. On the other hand, it might make it easier for students to share notes across sections, and would avoid making students who need to switch sections buy an- other book. But aside from Webster, there exists no student data in either direction, so let us discuss the pros and cons as we see them.”

I asked who Webster is. Zeek reminded us all that Webster is the disgruntled undergraduate who lobbied for his D+ in Physics 109 to be changed to a B+ on the grounds that he did not want a D+, and – since being denied – has included the non-normalization of the textbook in a list of grievances that he cites as grounds to organize a campus-wide walkout. Alice asked when this walkout is scheduled to occur. Zeek replied that Webster has not scheduled it but threatened numerous times to schedule it.

Then the pizza delivery person entered. All of us rose except Zeek, who remained on his yoga ball and began bouncing with higher amplitude and frequency, stoically swallowing impatience. Hakim reached the pizzas first, and piled four pepperoni onto his plate, his stomach apparently having recovered from the bad plums at breakfast.  Hakim asked why we needed four pizzas for seven people, to which Alice replied that it was because Hakim was one of the seven people.  Everyone laughed except Simone, who has no sense of humor, and our laughter grati- fied Alice, as she is new and eager to please. Then Zeek said pleasantly that they all really had better please sit back down and begin the meeting.

It took several more minutes because napkins and soda needed procuring from the kitchen, but then everyone did sit back down. There was a brief discussion regarding why Best Pizza does not supply napkins. Then for some time we were more interested in eating than speaking. By the time everyone was finished, it was five minutes before noon and time to adjourn.

Conclusion and Future Plans:

It was agreed that no agreement has been established regarding whether to normalize the Physics 109 textbook across class sections. The topic has been rescheduled for our next meeting.

“TOP O’ THE MORNING” NEWS

– FULL SEGMENT

Intro: Jingle: “Top o’ the Morning” (6 seconds).

Cue Anchor 1: Good mooOOrning, Arlington! This is Top o’ the Morning, your local news source. I’m Melissa Flores, here with my co-host Felix Day. Hi Felix!

Anchor 2: Hi Melissa!

Anchor 1: Hi!  First up on this glorious morning: a check-in on Arlington’s anonymous physics-themed thus-far-nonmurderous note-writer.  Police have yet to reveal suspects in regard to these notes that have been found by Arlington citizens, the third most recently at a Super’s Grocery Store. To remind our listeners: these notes all describe the physics underlying a murder that the note-writer could have wrought upon the note-receiver, but so far has opted not to.

This third note was delivered to a grocery clerk whose locker was open, along with a post-it note to please deliver the note to the intended grocery clerk, whose locker was locked at the time.

Meanwhile, we have confirmed with several prominent physicists at local academic institutions that the physics in the notes is accurate. This from Dr. Ezekiel Gold, Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Physics at our very own Arlington University. <sound bite: Professor Ezekiel Gold: “The physics certainly is accurate.  The general equations for momentum – that’s what we teach our first-year undergraduates. In fact, sudden-impact and electrical nerve impulses are terrific examples of the “meat and potatoes” of an undergraduate education. And the study guides that accompany the notes are impressively thorough. Just one caveat with the thallium poison smeared on the cell phone: I’m doubtful that a single exposure would ensure death.  But to be fair, biophysics is not my area.”> Asked for his opinion on the note-writer’s identity, Professor Gold had no suggestions.

In related news, the local Starbucks employees have in mind a suspect in relation to the note found by their co-worker there. For more we go to Bijal in the field. Hi Bijal!

Reporter (local): Hello Melissa! Well, the Starbucks staff have nick-named him the would-be –

Anchor 1: Or her, Bijal!

Reporter (local): Yes, or her – the “would-be murderer,” and several of the Starbucks employees have an idea, having sited a person behaving suspiciously at their store.  This person was observed to order a small black coffee.

Anchor 1: Small? No milk, sugar?

Reporter (local): Exactly.  It’s odd.  Now, while the sale of a simple small black coffee at Starbucks is not unprecedented, the person then proceeded to sit at a table and drink it, without accessing any electronic devices or even a book. He just gazed out the window, appearing calm.

Anchor 1: How creepy!

Reporter (local): Indeed.  The coupling of those two unusual behaviors, within the context of Starbucks Coffee, is what raised eyebrows.

Anchor 1: What do the police think?

Reporter (local): The police have still not released a statement. So, many questions here. Do the note-receivers know of others wishing them ill? Do they have a common acquaintance? And the physics in these note: is it a clue? The writer sure seems passionate about the topic.

Anchor 1: Passionate about which topic, Bijal – about murder or about physics?

Reporter (local): That is a terrific question, Melissa. We assume that the police must be looking into that. But so far: no answers.

Anchor 1: Intriguing, Bijal.  Thank you for your reporting!

Reporter (local): Thank you.

Anchor 1: And to all of our listeners out there, have yourselves a terrific morning!

End of segment.

Outro: Jingle: “Top o’ the Morning” reprise (3 seconds).

Eve Armstrong is an assistant professor of physics at New York Institute of Technology in Manhattan, and a research associate in the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Astrophysics. She creates science-themed satire for both print and performance. Murder by Theory is available here.

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