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TRIUMF | Vancouver, BC | Canada

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The Wilhelm Scream

—by Nigel S. Lockyer, Director

It seems to me that most experimental particle-physicists are movie buffs, even aficionados. I am not—at all. At best, I watch the movies on cross-country flights on my neighbour’s seat back…without earphones.  One consequence is that it places great demand on the characters’ acting and my  interpretation.

Just last week, I thought I was in new territory, though, allowing me braggadocio back at the lab, so to speak, ‘cuz I watched a good ole’ cowboy movie (with sound), and was told this was the origin of the “Wilhelm Scream.” I assume many of you have the free smartphone app “Wilhelm Scream,” and that you wondered where it came from. The originating movie (or so I thought) was “The Charge at Feather River,” a Warner Brothers 1953 classic with Guy Madison. The part of the movie where you hear the scream is obvious (or so I thought): some poor U.S. Army private takes a tomahawk to the shoulder. At least that’s what I remember.

A Youtube movie short on the web shows the scream when Pvt. Wilhelm was shot in the leg with an arrow. I guess I was focused on my Physics Today Buyers Guide at the time so I got it wrong. The scene was not very dramatic, but I guess the scream was a classic. It has been used in over 100 movies!  It was actually first used in a 1951 film called “Distant Drums,” starring Gary Cooper where a nasty alligator is the source of the problem.  Apparently there were several (dozens) “takes” and the best one somehow caught on with sound gurus and they used it over and over again.  Almost a sound cult formed: Star Trek, the Indiana Jones series, Toy Story, and a family favorite, Willow.  One more tid-bit: no one is sure who exactly was responsible for recording the original scream!

I think it is pretty cool that a scream from a 1951 film is an app in 2011, 60 years later!

In fact, 2011 is the Year of India in Canada, 60 years since the first Wilhem Scream.  During a state visit to India by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in November 2009, the year 2011 was declared The Year of India in Canada by India’s Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh. Against this backdrop, the High Commission of India in Ottawa, in cooperation with the India Council for Cultural Relations, has organized several cross-Canada events for this special year. Showcasing India’s rich art and culture, The Year of India in Canada 2011 promotes close ties between the two countries.

On my too-long plane journey, I asked myself what was happening in particle physics in 1951. First, there was no CERN, and I wasn’t even born. Interestingly, however, particle physics in India was thriving. See below, taken from “Reflections” by Avinash Khare, Institute of Physics, Bhubaneswar 751 005, India. Pretty awesome that the Prime Minister shows up to a physics conference!

If you visit VECC in Kolkata, India, you’ll go past a statue of Homi Bhabha as you enter the lab. It is nicely lit up at night. Watch out for the snakes…you might scream!

Text of Bhabha speech in 1951

Text of H. Bhabha speech from 1951 physics conference in India.

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