Fantasy Physics Season Preview

While I was away for the weekend, intending to mostly ignore the Internet, Steve Maier tweeted:

#FantasyFootball ?
What if #FantasyPhysics existed–who would be your picks?

This, of course, ended up sucking up a huge amount of mental energy for the rest of the weekend, because it’s such perfect blog fodder. If I’d had a laptop with me, I might’ve ended up staying up late writing it up, but instead, I’m skipping the second half of a horror-show game between my Giants and the hated Cowboys to write it on Sunday night…

So. Fantasy physics. For those not up on their pop culture, this is a riff on fantasy football, in which players put together teams of NFL players of their choice, and accrue points for their “team” based on the individual stats of the players in the real games. So, for example, when Drew Brees, the quarterback of the New Oreleans Saints, passed for 357 yards and two touchdowns against the Falcons on Sunday, my fantasy football team got 21.48 points in the league I’m in. You will frequently end up with odd situations where one fantasy team includes two players on opposite sides of the same game– my team includes both Jordy Nelson of the Packers and Anquan Boldin of the 49ers, who played each other– so it’s kind of weird from the perspective of normal sports fandom.

So, “owners” in a Fantasy Physics league would need to accrue points for physicists on their “team” doing the things that physicists do. A partial list of scoring activities might look something like:

Contributed talk/poster at a conference: 1pt
Preprint posted to arxiv: 1pt
Press release from home institution: 1pt
News story in local media: 2pts
Invited conference talk: 3pts
News story in national media: 4pts
Article in peer-reviewed journal: 5pts
Article in Physical Review journal: 10pts
Book published by university press: 12pts
Article in Physical Review Letters or Nature Physics: 15pts
Research grant from national grant agency (NSF, DOE, DoD, NSA): 15pts
Featured in tv program (NOVA, Naked Science, Through the Wormhole, etc.): 15pts
Popular book published by trade publisher: 15pts
Popular book hits best-seller list: 17pts
Article in Science or Nature: 20pts
Professional society honor (APS Fellow, etc.): 20pts
Guest spot on The Big Bang Theory: 25 pts
TED talk: 25pts
Professional society prize (Schawlow, Broida, Davisson-Germer, Apker, etc.): 30 pts
Large international award (Wolf Prize, Fundamental Physics Prize, Fields Medal, etc.): 40pts
Nobel Prize: 50pts

(These point values were scientifically calculated using sophisticated methods that to the uninitiated might look like daydreaming during a flight from BWI to Albany.)

Then, of course, you need to set some rules for the roster. A typical fantasy football team will include one quarterback, a couple of running backs, a couple of wide receivers, etc., so as to cover most of the positions with easily tracked statistics. The physics equivalent would be to demand some spread of specialities– you shouldn’t be able to load up on just high energy theorists, or whatever. So, taking the American Physical Society’s units as a rough guide, let’s say you need two experimentalists and one theorist from the following categories:

Astrophysics/ Cosmology
Atomic, Molecular, and Optical (AMO) Physics
Condensed Matter Physics
Materials Physics
Nuclear Physics
Particle Physics

(There are twice as many experimentalists as theorists because experimentalists take a little longer to produce results, and can go a long time between papers. It’s basically the same logic that requires multiple wide receivers and running backs for a typical fantasy football team, but only one quarterback.)

(Condensed matter type systems might seem overrepresented, having both “condensed matter” and “materials physics,” but in fact, they’re the most numerous category of physicists, by a large margin.)

That’s 18 slots, which is kind of a lot, but then there are a lot more physics labs in the world than NFL teams, so a large roster isn’t unreasonable. Throw in a couple of “wild card” spots, and make it an even 20.

Rosters are, of course, restricted to living physicists, and the season runs from November 1 to October 31, so it ends shortly after the Nobel announcements, which can do a lot to redeem otherwise mediocre teams.

Then, of course, you need to set up your draft priorities. Here, we need to lean more heavily on the analogy to football to define some categories of players:

The Drew Brees/ Tom Brady Category: These are players who put up great numbers year in and year out. You can rely on them to be productive, and fill up the stat sheet. And there’s the additional possibility that, in any given week, they might do something really amazing.

Physicists in this category would include experimentalists like Wolfgang Ketterle and Anton Zeilinger, and theorists like Peter Zoller and Leonard Susskind.

The Larry Fitzgerald Category: Fitzgerald is a terrific wide receiver on a team that has had terrible problems finding a quarterback and an offensive line. He’s got the ability to put up big numbers, but he needs somebody to throw him the ball. Other players in this category would include people like Stevie Johnson and CJ Spiller of the Buffalo Bills, who again have great talent, but it’s not clear who will get them the ball. Anybody playing in Oakland or Jacksonville probably also belongs in this category.

The physics analogue would be people with the potential to do great things, but an obvious problem that might hold them up. For example, Peter Higgs might well be in line for a Nobel, except there are at least six others who can claim to have come up with the same idea, and the Nobel is limited to three. Or there’s someone like Mildred Dresselhaus who’s a great physicist, and well respected, but they already gave a Nobel for graphene to somebody else.

The Doug Martin/ Victor Cruz Category Doug Martin is a running back for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and was moderately well regarded coming into last year, so I picked him up late as a second running back; he put up something like 50 points one week, out of nowhere. Victor Cruz was an undrafted free agent for the Giants who ended up being one of their best receivers. These are players who might not do anything at all, but might explode into something really spectacular. Tom Brady was in this category when he started out, back in 1999.

This is, obviously, the hardest category to predict, because if you had any good idea who was going to break out of nowhere, they wouldn’t really be in this category in the first place. The all-time physics examples of this category are Hall of Famers Albert Einstein (who took the 1905 season by storm) and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga. A future prospect would have to be somebody like Eric Weinstein, who might have a real Theory of Everything, or might just be deluded.

The Carson Palmer Category Palmer is the guy who’s going to be throwing the ball to Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona. Probably. He had some really good years with the Bengals a while back, but is on his third team now, and might not have it any more. If he still has metaphorical gas in the metaphorical tank, he’ll be great, but he might just be over the hill. Past examples that worked out are players like Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson last year, who were coming off career-threatening injuries, but wound up having great years. Examples that didn’t go well are, well, Brett Favre with the Jets and Vikings, or Tim Tebow with the Jets and Patriots.

If you think I’m going to name physicists who belong in this category, you’re crazy. But keep it in mind when you’re ranking physicists for draft purposes…

So, there you go: The rules and draft strategy for Fantasy Physics League. So, who’s in?

(Suggested additions to the scoring rules or draft categories are welcome in the comments. We probably ought to have some penalty points, too: using Comic Sans on talk slides would be -1pt, while retracting a paper would be -20pts, etc. I’ve already put too much thought into this, though…)

6 thoughts on “Fantasy Physics Season Preview

  1. Can I draft the entire field of black hole firewall paradox people? Because there have been 100+ papers in the last year.

    Also I’d take Witten and Maldacena if possible.

  2. Very clever! Maybe 20 points could be added for appearing on a major talk show, such as the ones hosted by Stephen Colbert, Rachel Maddow, Jon Stewart or Jimmy Kimmel.

  3. Can I draft the entire field of black hole firewall paradox people?

    Things like the firewall mess are the reason for the disciplinary distribution requirement. So you could get a maximum of about four firewall types (theorists in Astrophysics, Particle Physics, and two wild cards). The exact distribution of people would be determined by a draft– players assigned a random draft order, going through 20 rounds of picks. Witten and Maldacena would probably go early, so it’d be hard to get both on the same team.

    Maybe 20 points could be added for appearing on a major talk show, such as the ones hosted by Stephen Colbert, Rachel Maddow, Jon Stewart or Jimmy Kimmel.

    Oh, that’s a good one. Yes, we can add that.

    Career advancement steps would be another good addition, maybe: 5 points for getting tenure, 7 for full professor, 10 for an endowed chair. Not sure whether institution hopping should be worth more or less than those– does getting a position at the Perimeter Institute count for more or less than getting an endowed chair at a university?

  4. Not sure whether institution hopping should be worth more or less than those– does getting a position at the Perimeter Institute count for more or less than getting an endowed chair at a university?

    Probably better to avoid that game unless you are willing to open the can of worms that is relative ranking of physics programs. There are a handful that pretty much everybody would agree are top notch (MIT, Harvard, Oxbridge, etc.); after that it becomes highly field-dependent.

  5. Slight aversion of the intended fantasy physicist topic, but I have to ask – in fantasy football, how well does someone who obsesses over player stats to make their picks typically do against someone who chooses their players randomly, or with some weighted preference to players high in a particular stat in each category? Are football fans better at picking football teams than economists are at picking stocks?

  6. Invited conference talk: 3pts

    – and can we have a penalty of -3pts, if the final slide of said talk says “Thank you for listening!”, instead of being something useful and interesting like Conclusions or Outlook. This habit seems to be spreading like the plague (6 out of 10 talks I saw today did it).

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