Monday, January 01, 2007

Cabaret von Einstein

For two hundred, you can learn general relativity from a brunette.

Cabaret von Einstein sits at an obscure corner off Langestrasse. Zurich, like most European cities, is small, and its Langestrasse is no more than a mile long. I crossed the Sihl River from its north bank, where I was staying in a small hotel for the night, and walked from one end of Langestrasse to the other in less than fifteen minutes. Just as I read on my guidebook, this red-light district of Zurich was extraordinarily clean, and aside from a few short solicitations from heavily perfumed women, I walked alone untroubled.

I passed by half a dozen cabarets, and dropped in one of them. It was surprisingly empty, especially for a Saturday evening. A few customers sat sipping Champagne with their consorts, and long hiatus passed between girls who came on stage to dance around the lonely stainless steel pole. Men walked in and out. Few sat down. I sat down for a few tunes. But when a girl put her hand on my right knee and suggested that I buy her Champagne, I apologized and left.

It was on my way back to my hotel that I discovered Cabaret von Einstein. Trying to avoid the enticing offers of the pretty ladies, I walked along a side street parallel to Langestrasse. Nothing stirred on the street, until I approached the crossing of the river, where I noticed a neon light spelling E=mc2. Below, a lanky, bespectacled bouncer stood at the entrance. Painted on the wall was "Cabaret von Einstein. Unsere Mädchen lassen dich Relativität verstehen." (My translation to English: Cabaret of Einstein. Our girls let you understand relativity.) No one was waiting in front of the door.

The sign scratched me in the loins. I walked in, and was shocked to see a full house: scores of men sat everywhere on the couches, beanbags, tatamis, barstools, arranged in a cleverly designed close packing pattern. More than three dozen ladies, attired in diverse styles, some casual, some prudish, yet some sensual, bustled around. On the right of the entrance door was the dancing stage, but instead of the stainless steel pole, there hang a whiteboard like one used in a college classroom, and it was being covered with mathematical equations by the slender hand of a full-bosomed woman, thirty-something looking, and wearing reflective lipstick. I heard her speak, as I entered the room, with an Australian accent and a pulsating prurient undertone:

"Thus I have shown that a black hole has no hair."

This, of course, refers to the famous result in relativistic astronomy that a black hole is always spherical and without magnetic field lines, regardless of the deformities and magnetization of its generating star. But told by that voice, it etched in my mind forever.

I sat down on a lazyboy, facing the stage. There was some lingering giggles from the crowd in response to the lecturing woman's concluding remark. But most men seemed to be engrossed in their conversation with their companion girls that the sentence fell silent on their ears. Now the woman on stage, finishing her performance, put on a casual jacket checkered in red and yellow, and walked to my side.

"Mind if I sit down?" She asked.

"By all means; it would be my pleasure." I replied, a little despite myself. I ordered two glasses of Champagne. She gulped.

She was the mistress of the house. She was an assistant professor of physics at Harvard before, but had been running the cabaret since 2002, shortly after she was denied tenure.

"I was doing well, publishing in Physical Review Letters and Nature, and getting grants from the Department of Energy. Everyone saw promotion coming my way. Then Larry Summers ascended to the Harvard throne." She paused, and, raising her Champagne flute over her hazelnut eyes, she examed the yellowish liquid against the flickering blue track light. "I was running against an African American dude. A brainy guy, I hold no grudge against him. It was really a match of gender versus race, and the trophy went to the latter." She searched my face for clues of my siding. I had none. She finished her Champagne, and asked me: "What's your field of study?"

I am a physical chemist. I was in Switzerland for a one-week conference on computational chemistry. I was staying overnight in Zurich on my way back to New York. I told her that my research interests included allosteric effects in proteins, computation of free energies, and signal transduction in living cells. I added that I would also be happy to pay extra to have a wavy-haired lady explain to me the essence of string theory while wearing a G-string.

She sneered, and opened the menu on the table. It was the beverage list. The top items were:
  • Veuve Clicquot de Relativité, CHF 200
Enjoy a bottle of Brut with a blondie or brunette and have a discussion on Einstein's space-time invariance.
  • Laurent-Pierre de la mécanique quantique, CHF 300
The Champagne is dry, but our ebony temptress will wet your experience with an exposition of Dirac's bra and ket.
  • Gloria Ferrer avec la biologie moléculaire, CHF 300
Toast to the discoveries in biology since Watson and Crick with an Asian butterfly.

The mistress told me that those were the most popular, unless I cared to hear about the special: a bottle of Bollinger special Cuvée and a well-endowed woman to discuss active research on the premises.

"All the girls here are working on some cutting-edge problems when they are not entertaining the guests. Most girls have Ph.Ds, but they can't find other fit employment. Some girls are studying toward their Ph.Ds in the nearby Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, a.k.a ETH, where Einstein also got his Ph.D. They are remarkably undaunted, knowing where they will most likely end up after getting their degrees." But the Cabaret provided steady employment, and an intellectually stimulating environment for the girls to do ground-breaking research. The mistress earnestly informed me that her cabaret was the largest employer of women in scientific research.

The price of the special was jaw-dropping. But it was worth the money, the mistress assured me. Stanley Prusiner learnt of the prion knock-out mice from a girl working in the cabaret in the early 90's; Andrew Fire got an inkling of RNA interference when he drank champagne with Lily, a girl who had since abandoned science altogether and was now working in the Malibu Bar , a cabaret on Langestrasse.

"Extraordinary girl, that Lily. She could please with her brain as well as with her booty." She sighed.

We chatted more. I was astonished to learn how many scientific milestones could be attributed to these Cabaret specials. Nearly everyone who ran up his tab on the special went home to publish major scientific breakthroughs, and reaped ample reward of a flourishing career and generous grants. All told, Cabaret of Einstein had indisputably shaped the landscape of today's scientific research.

"Of course, sometimes some girls grunt about not getting the credit of their research." The mistress went on, "But really, giving the results away to the man scientists in academic institutions was the only chance that these valuable discoveries could be made known to the community. Just imagine the editors' reaction when they get a submission from a Cabaret off Langestrasse." Then she looked at me expectantly,

"So, special for you?"

Looking around the packed room, I recognized a few figures. Some had been to the same conference with me; some I had seen pictures of in magazines or met in prior conferences. It was a mixed crowd of old and young. Whereas most of the young men ordered off the menu, one after another the older men requested the special.

I stood up, left money on the table, and put on my jacket. The mistress was incredulous: "Leaving already?" Nodding, I made for the door. I needed to get in that Malibu Bar before Lily got off work.