Sunday, November 27, 2011

You have many strange new e-mail messages

Errors happen and sometimes with humor. Case in point...

JoAnne Hewett’s most recent paper is a collaboration between physicists at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, the University of Chicago, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The team relies heavily on e-mail; at certain stages of the project, they were sending between 50 and 100 e-mails per day.

Somewhere along the thread, one of the physicists mistyped an e-mail address, rerouting the deluge from Ben H. Lillie, a particle theorist at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory, to Ben V. Lillie, a 29-year-old pharmaceutical sales representative and father of two in Auburn, Alabama.

“The first e-mail showed up in early June, and I honestly thought it was spam,” Alabama Ben recalls. “It looked like one of those pharmaceutical online purchase deals or viruses that had nothing but characters and numbers.”

Oblivious to the error, SLAC’s Hewett and her colleagues continued their discussions of ILC simulations and novel SUSY parameters. “We were wondering why we weren’t getting any e-mails back from our Ben,” Hewett says, “but we went our merry way.”

As the paper neared its final stages, the content of the e-mails increased in complexity. “They hardly seemed like English,” says Alabama Ben. “I have a BS in business management and a minor in computer science, so I would like to think I am not a complete idiot, but these e-mails were on such a high level I thought they had to be a joke. Even my computer programs have fewer symbols and characters.”

Although the e-mails were incoherent, they seemed harmless, so Alabama Ben ignored them for three weeks. “But then I realized that someone else—my clone in Chicago—was probably feeling left out,” he says. “So I told them they were sending their messages to the wrong address.”

His attempt to clarify the situation, however, only made it worse. “We thought that message came from our Ben,” Hewett says, “so it led to a huge flurry of e-mail messages—more than 100 per day for about a week.”

Finally, Alabama Ben explained it as clearly as possible for the theoretical physicists. “I’d love to help you guys out,” he insisted, “but I’m just a pharmaceutical rep in Auburn, Alabama, and I’m afraid this is way over my head. But thank you for the interesting e-mails.”

“Just a pharmaceutical rep,” he may be, but one with a unique link to the field of theoretical physics. Hewett and her colleagues acknowledge his contribution in the paper they submitted to the Journal of High Energy Physics, “General Features of Supersymmetric Signals at the ILC: Solving the LHC Inverse Problem,” with a line citing him by name “for his good humor and patience.”

As for Alabama Ben, “I see it as the time I dabbled in particle physics and linear theory,” he jokes. “The particle accelerator in the garage still has a few bugs in it, but it’s getting there.”

Reported by Lizzie Buchen in the October/November 2007 issue of Symmetry.

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