“It’s like a drug,” said Physics Professor Peter H. Fisher, referring to the 14 minutes of fame he got in a recent appearance on NBC’s Late Show with Conan O’Brien.
Most of the time, Fisher researches dark matter. But for brief few days at the beginning of February, he found himself contemplating a more mundane problem: how to make O’Brien’s wedding ring spin on his desk for a long, long time.
Fisher appeared on O’Brien’s show on Feb. 8 as a guest to help O’Brien improve his ring’s spin time. Because of the Writer’s Guild strike, the problem had occupied parts of O’Brien’s show for days.
Contacted by supervising producer Frank Smiley to help Conan break his 41-second record, Fisher approached the challenge in the problem domain he knows best: physics. Fisher theorized that either air drag or friction must slow down a spinning ring, and so he sent an e-mail to his Electricity and Magnetism (8.02) students in the early morning hours of Feb. 7, requesting their suggestions.
Within an hour, Fisher got several dozen suggestions, ranging from replacing the air around the ring with helium to using an air table. With these suggestions and with the results of several home trials in hand, Fisher headed to Rockefeller Center in New York City for the taping of the show at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 8.
During the rehearsal, O’Brien, a Brookline native, talked with Fisher about the Boston area. After discussing various possible spin methods, they settled on using Vaseline and Teflon. Some spins with Vaseline lasted more than 80 seconds during the rehearsal. (He set a 51-second record in the tape that aired on national television.)
A tinkerer by nature, Fisher spent most of his time at NBC with the technical staff. Fisher said he was impressed at the staff’s multifarious talents, ranging from sewing to welding.
Fisher said that he first heard O’Brien’s questions during the taping — none of their banter was rehearsed. He said that talking to Conan was just like having a normal conversation.
O’Brien’s energy trickles down to his staff, Fisher said. “Organizations collectively assume the personality of their leader,” he said.
Fisher has gotten publicity before: he was interviewed about dark matter for a summer 2007 episode of the PBS show NOVA.
Aside from the ego boost of public exposure, Fisher said he enjoyed being interviewed on O’Brien’s show because, as trivial as the goal was, he liked showing viewers how math and science can be applied to real life. To increase students’ interest in math and science, “you have to show how it [math and science] applies to their life,” he said.
Asked whether he would quit his day job to be on TV, Fisher replied confidently and with a slight chuckle, “I love my job.”