Merry Christmas and an Academic New Year

This post originally appeared on my Guardian Higher Education blog.

Merry Christmas (REF is over). Hopefully you can breathe a sigh of relief and ease into a nice relaxing Christmas break. Or, if like me you have a long list of papers to finish, I hope this post will at least bring you a little bit of holiday cheer.

One of my favourite ways to get into the holiday mood is to bake something Christmassy; there is nothing quite like the smell of nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves filling your house. As well as reminding you of Christmases past, it turns out that these spices produce chemicals similar to amphetamines when baked, potentially acting as a natural mood enhancer.

Once you are high on Lebkuchen, you are ready to put your feet up and sink into some Christmas-themed research. Highlights include Will climate change kill Santa Claus?, on the potential decline of Santa-themed tourism, and a rigorous analysis of 344 letters to Santa. Though kids ask for an average of seven gifts per letter, the jury is still out on whether or not gift giving is ultimately welfare enhancing.

While kids may love his gift-giving powers, this study shows that they are pretty ambivalent about actually meeting Santa in person. The facial expressions of children queuing to see Santa in a shopping centre were compared with a scale used to measure pain in medical settings. Of 300 children assessed, 247 were deemed “indifferent” to the prospect of meeting the mythical bearded man, while 47 were “hesitant”. By contrast, most of the accompanying adults wore “exhilarated” expressions, perhaps as a result of overenthusiastic attempts to get the kids to give a damn.

The author of the study suggests that Santa “may not be an important hero figure and might even be considered a stranger” to the children. However a survey conducted in Denmark counters that people perceive Santa as being as trustworthy as a doctor, and more friendly, despite his nonexistence.

The Canadian Medical Association, concerned about occupational health risks, has published a doctor’s referral for Mr Claus. Potential ailments include obesity and hypertension, respiratory problems caused by repeated exposure to ash in chimneys, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (he’s always making lists and checking them twice).

Rudolph may also have some health problems. I always assumed that his red nose was the result of a severe cold, however one academic argues that Rudolph is in fact suffering from a parasitic infection of his respiratory system.

Speaking of Rudolph, the chemists may be interested to learn of two chemicals, rudolphomycin and rednose. The paper detailing these chemicals was submitted to the journal on December 21st (1978). While the journal allowed the silly name to stand, the chemist was rebuked by his boss for not taking his job seriously enough.

An excellent contribution to the Christmas literature came this year from Laura Birg and Anna Goeddeke. Their comprehensive review of Christmas economics highlights some interesting trends: the US stock market surges in the pre-holiday period, though this effect is decreasing over time (in New Zealand the effect is increasing); alcohol consumption and related accidents and deaths spike during the holidays, though suicides decrease; and the number of people dying of cardiovascular diseases increases markedly, though the exact reasons for this are unclear.

Women do most of the Christmas shopping, men are happier, and more kids are conceived – no causal link has been established between these three observations.

The week on Twitter

The academic Twittersphere has been particularly full of Christmas cheer this week. The hashtag #XmasSongPapers is being used to reframe famous Christmas song titles as academic papers:

Meanwhile, a handful of creative academics have been converting their left over draft manuscripts into office decorations:

Finally, while I was doing my PhD, we created this beautiful Christmas tree from old boxes left over from an IT delivery:

Box Tree

Have a go at some #XmasSongPapers or #DraftFlakes, and let me know what your#AcademicXmas plans are – @AcademiaObscura.

Food, Glorious Food

This is a slightly edited version of a post that originally appeared on the Guardian Higher Education blog.

Whether you like it or not, the festive season is approaching. Soon, we will be eating all sorts of delicious things that are really bad for us, and drinking in quantities that would be considered problematic at any other time of the year. But this week we shall settle for some tasty morsels from academia’s pantry of nonsense.

Christmas may be a time for indulgence, but most PhD students are broke and survive on a diet of junk food. If you find yourself with only half a bag of stale crisps in your office – as I have on many occasions – there is a simple way to turn them into an appealing snack. Play crisp noises while you eat and you can trick your brain into believing that they are fresh, crisp, and delicious. Yum.

Admittedly this requires some effort, and you would be well advised to make the most of the abundant opportunities for free food in academia instead. The Refreshments Will be Provided blog will give you a good overview of what’s on offer.

Studying soup bowls

I hope that in the future, office canteens will be equipped with the bowls used in this study, which investigated the effect that eating soup from a self-replenishing bowl has on your appetite.

The bowls quietly refilled themselves over a 20-minute period and researchers measured whether participants ate more.

I plan to patent a network of self-replenishing ramen bowls for PhD offices. Ramen noodles, incidentally, are serious business: this kid was awarded a place in a top US university because they were so impressed with his admissions essay on the subject.

Medical literature: food-related incidents

Now for the disgusting bit. As you might imagine, medical literature is rife with accounts of unusual food-related incidents. Perhaps the worst I’ve seen is the case of a Korean woman who experienced a tingling sensation in her mouth after eating squid. Imagine her horror when she was told that this was caused by “parasite-like sperm bags” that had attached themselves to the inside of her cheeks. Lovely.

And remember when your parents told you not to play with your food? There was good reason for this. One report documents the case of a man with “lipoid pneumonia”, caused by injecting olive oil into places he shouldn’t have, while another demonstrates that even a salami can be dangerous in the wrong hands. “Rectal salami” may be the most evocative paper title ever.

Should you find yourself in the midst of a life-threatening nosebleed at Christmas dinner, however, do feel free to unwrap your pigs from their blankets and fashion a “nasal tampon” to stem the bleeding.

Particularly odd is the rich literature on the swallowing of whole live fish. You’d think we’d have figured out the difference between live fish and dead fish (also known as seafood) by now, yet I found at least four reports of this error. One is entitled Return of the Killer Fish, and I can’t help but think that this is more a case of stupid human than killer fish.

To finish up on the subject of food, I bring you two of my favourite happy coincidences. The first is a study on the chemical composition of the flavour of popcorn. The lead author is one Mr Ron Buttery. The second is a paper on the fungi used in cheese making, written by none other than Mr Kevin Cheeseman. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Best PhD-themed cake I’ve seen this week

This cake, made for a marine biology and ecology student, shows all of the organisms she discovered while snorkelling and collecting samples during her PhD.

seagrass cake

The First Annual Academics In Hats Awards

We recently managed to get the hashtag #AcademicsInHats doing the rounds on twitter.

Best In Show

The Prize1 for Best In Show at the 1st Annual Academia Obscura Academics in Hats Awards goes to Dr. Matt Lodder. His lovely hat, combined with a fantastic moustache and custom artwork makes him simply irresistible. Matt is an Art historian and the Director of US Studies at the University of Essex. He is currently Writing a history of tattoos as art.

Congratulations, Matt!

MattLodder

Best Photography

The award for Best Photography goes to Camilla Ulleland Hoel, a Norweigan academic into Victorian/20th-21st c. literature. Her beautiful photo evokes the very essence of academia – head in a book, tweed waistcoat, and a glass of what we can only assume is whisky. An all round beautiful photo.

Camilla Hoel

Best Couple

We simply could not choose only one winner for the couples category, so we decided to jointly award the two following pairs for their sterling efforts.

Aimee Eckhart, PhD student in cancer biology and self-professed lover of science and tea, and Jon Tennant, PhD student in palaeontology.

Aimee Eckhart, PhD student in cancer biology and self-professed lover of science and tea, and Jon Tennant, PhD student in palaeontology.

Rhonda Ragsdale and her as-yet-unidentified partner, both dressed in their finest formal wear.

Rhonda Ragsdale and her as-yet-unidentified partner, both dressed in their finest formal wear.

Most Hats

The prestigious award for Most Hats goes to Jason Davies, an interdisciplinary academic at University College London. Jason’s specialities evidently include wearing multiple hats, as he manages an astounding 7 in this photo. Extra points for the Christmas cheer!

jasondavies

Most Hats – Runner Up

Dieter Hochuli, an ecologist at Sydney University, deserves a special mention in the Most Hats category. Although our expert hat counters only spotted 6 hats, Dieter ingeniously links his hat wearing to his discipline, noting his resemblance to an Australian moth colloquially known as the ‘Mad Hatterpillar‘ for its unusual exoskeleton.

dieterhochuli_

Best Accompanying Facial Expression

The Best Facial Expression While Wearing a Hat award goes to Northern Bloke Stephen Etheridge. As well as researching brass bands, the working class and the north, he can also pull one hell of a grumpy face!

stephenetheridge

Best Photoshop

By far the best photoshop effort is the result of a cross-channel collaboration between French researcher François-Xavier Coudert (pictured) and Scottish researcher Graham Shaw. While the pirate hat is original, the addition of a parrot and the atmospheric B&W are the result of some world-class photo manipulation skills.

fx_photoshop

Best Impersonation

The award for Best Impersonation goes to French researcher Sylvain Deville who, whether he intended to or not, bears more than a passing resemblance to Woody from Toy Story:

fx

Best Animal Hat

Sarah V Melton, a PhD candidate at Emory University, fought off some stiff competition to win the Animal Hats category, which proved particular popular. Though it was very difficult to choose a winner, Sarah’s entry shone through by continuing the academic tradition of being unhealthily interested in penguins.

svmelton_

Not a Hat

Jessica Sage and David Webster came close to wearing hats, but our esteemed panel of judges2 deemed that, in fact, bike helmets don’t really count. As a compromise, they have been jointly awarded the ‘Not a Hat’ prize.

jessica

david

Also Ran

Last, and perhaps also least, we have the ‘also rans’.

Andres Guadamuz tried to pass off this llama as an academic in a hat:

llama

 

Julia Largent didn’t have a hat to hand so she photoshopped one into her twitter profile picture:

julialargent

And finally, this kid wore a mortarboard with a giant chicken wing on it to graduation.

hiockeb

Pleas do not despair if you were not awarded a prize this time around. Come back next year with your best hat and have another go. Or, given the unlikelihood of this ever happening again, continue to contribute your photos on twitter to #AcademicsWithHats, and we’ll update his prestigious list as we see fit.

Thanks to all those that took part!

  1. Please note, there is no actual prize.
  2. Really just me.

This Post is Intentionally Left Blank

The PDF version of this paper is available on Figshare.
Authors: 
@AcademiaObscura, @fxcoudert, @astonsplat, @McDawg, @DevilleSy

Abstract

Common in all areas of publishing, the phrase “This Page is Intentionally Left Blank” has been found in peer-reviewed academic articles costing $30 to access. To the best of our knowledge, this paper represents the first known review of Intentionally Blank Pages (IBPs). We looked at the variations in samples from the existing literature, and quantified the amount of blankness on such pages using a new metric, the “Blankness Defect Rate” (BDR). After showing that most blank pages are defective, we suggest a number of alternatives, factually correct or less ambiguous. Finally, we offer some possible explanations for this phenomenon, including “editor’s block”, a creative impairment similar to the well-known “writer’s block”, and identify avenues for future research on this critical topic.

* * *

pipe

Figure 1: Comparison of self-referentialism in surrealist art and academic literature.

1. Context

The phrase “This Page is Intentionally Left Blank” is ubiquitous in the world of printed text, appearing most notably in instruction manuals and exam papers. It is generally accepted that its purpose is to indicate that the page on which it appears is purposely bereft of content. Yet the very inclusion of this phrase nullifies its intent: the page is no longer blank. Indeed, it is now intentionally not blank. By virtue of self-reference, the phrase denies its own existence, despite the fact that we know it is there. This is, essentially, a rather banal, academic version of René Magritte’s surrealist work, The Treachery of Images (Figure 1).

The US Code of Regulations (1984) actually mandates that blank pages in certain books and pamphlets must be marked as such.1 As such, they are especially common in technical works. This has lead to a large number of people attempting to solve the philosophical conundrum such non-blank blank pages create, often through online fora and crowdsourcing platforms. The Office of the General Counsel at the US General Accounting Office, acutely aware of the distress caused, purported in 2001 to have resolved the conundrum in its Principles of Federal Appropriations Law (Second Edition, Volume IV).2 Text on page ii, which is otherwise blank, reads “This page is intended to be blank. Please do not read it.” However, this appears to have only further entrenched the philosophical contradictions, and the subsequent Third Edition contained no such text on its blank page.

It was recently discovered via social media that a number of peer-reviewed academic ‘articles’, costing $30 to access, consist solely of one blank page (Figure 2).3 In order to determine what value was being added to these pages by the peer review process that they have undergone, we set out to investigate their blankness. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first systematic study of intentionally blank pages (IBP) in the academic literature.

screenshot

Figure 2: screenshot of the ScienceDirect checkout page, accessed via an institutional login from SciencesPo, showing the cost of an IBP taken from Verified Synthesis of Zeolitic Materials (2001).

2. Methodology

A total of 56 individual IBPs were found on the online ScienceDirect platform, 24 of which were immediately available for purchase and study. These appear to be a cross-disciplinary selection, so it is felt that this will give a good indication of the treatment of IBPs over a wide range of subjects. It is notable that these IBPs are largely from books. It appears that journals generally do not leave blank pages, intentionally.

blankblankblank

Figure 3: Variability in font family, size and resolution of the text on intentionally blank pages.

3. Analysis

Out of 24 PDFs, only one was truly blank. This was checked by rendering of its contents at high resolution (600 dpi) followed by a search for non-white pixels. The remainder were manually examined, showing some variety in their style (Figure 3). One used a sans-serif font, although the majority (22 out of 24) used a rasterized sans serif font in varying sizes and positioning.

3.1. Blankness

Despite their claim to have been ‘intentionally left blank’, our analysis shows that almost none of the IBPs have, in actual fact, been left blank: all but one of them contain the text “This Page is Intentionally Left Blank”. The exception is an IBP from Parallel Computational Fluid Dynamics 2000 (2001). The reason for the omission of the informative text on this page remains wholly unclear.

The prevalence of text on these ‘blank pages’ will either disappoint readers that have paid $30 for a product that was falsely advertised, or raise existential questions such as, “what is a blank page?” and “why did I choose a career in academia?”

histogram

Figure 4: Histogram of disclaimer text width on IBPs. The data point corresponding to the single perfectly blank page in our sample is highlighted in orange.

The amount of blankness varies, which can be quantified using a factor we have named the “blankness defect rate” (BDR). The BDR can be defined as the amount of space on the page that is in fact not blank, primarily caused by the presence of text. Automated determination of the BDR was undertaken using custom Mathematica scripts. The primary factor affecting the BDR was the size of the informative text (Figure 4), with larger text leading to a higher BDR. The font used may also affect the BDR, whereby fonts with serifs cause higher BDRs, due to their occupying more space. Additional interference effects may also be present.

The average BDR of the sampled IBPs is 0.163% (±0.04%), while the average amount of non-blank space (i.e. ink) is 0.830 cm2 (±0.204).

3.2. File Size

The total size of the 24 IBPs is 237 kB, averaging almost 10kb per page. Individual IBPs varied from 7 kB to an impressive 19 kB, as can be seen in Appendix 1. By contrast, our control has a size of merely 365 bytes. Even the peer-reviewed genuinely blank IBP was 8.2 kB in size. To put this into perspective, only 144 average IBPs provided by journals can be stored on one standard floppy disk; our control allows for the storage of 3945 IBPs. Printing these would certainly provide enough blank pages for most practical purposes.

Figure 5: Chart showing text alignment across the sampled IBPs.

Figure 5: Chart showing text alignment across the sampled IBPs.

3.3. Positioning of Text

Visual observation shows that most pages have their text placed centrally, both horizontally and vertically. There is some variation, however, most commonly horizontal displacement of the text to the right and downwards vertical displacement. This distribution can be seen in Figure 5.

The pages are all designed to be viewed in portrait mode, with no line-breaks being used. What is intended to occur if pages are purchased for use in landscape orientation is unclear, but the text will be misaligned in such situations, causing readers to have to turn either their heads or their reading material in order to confirm that the page is indeed blank.

Being the only truly blank IBP sampled, the IBP from Parallel Computational Fluid Dynamics 2000 (2001) has no predetermined orientation or alignment. In fact, it may be rotated and/or reversed at will, maintaining its original character at all times.

3.4. Cost

The publisher-provided IBPs furnish 31 characters to the reader for $30 (Figure 2), a cost of approximately $1.33 per character. Our control was created in a matter of minutes, for free, using a simple text editor. Considering the current pressure on research funding, and to ensure no unnecessary spending of taxpayer money is undertaken, we recommend the use of our control IBP in future. We have therefore placed it under the Creative Commons CC0 license, and made it available online (DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.12593).

At $30 per PDF, anecdotally a common price point for ‘scientific’ papers, readers pay an average of $33.58 per square centimetre of ink (cm–2). There is some variability in this price, owing to variations in the BDR. The most expensive blank page costs $46.35/cm(page 16 of Joe Grand’s Best of Hardware: Wireless and Game Console Hacking); the least expensive is a mere $23.21/cm2 (We couldn’t quite bring ourselves to say “the cheapest”).

Given that the publisher’s cost are partly linked to the size of files hosted on their web servers, a further perspective to consider is the price per MB. These PDF copies of the sample IBPs are sold at $3,331.85 per MB (± $640.97). We note that publishers could substantially increase profit margins by selling truly blank IBPs. Our defect-free IBP, fully compliant with PDF 1.1 and later standards, is a mere 365 bytes (0.000365 MB). If sold at the same nominal price of $30, that would represent $86,184 per MB. Alternatively, if sold at the same price per MB as the sampled IBPs, a true IBP need cost only $1.16. This would greatly alleviate the heavy financial burden borne by academic institutions that frequently require blank pages.

4. Possible explanations

One possible explanation for the inclusion of text in the IBPs is that the stock phrase used in the majority of the sampled papers is, in fact, intended as a kōan, i.e. a statement used in Zen practice to provoke the “great doubt” and test a student’s progress. If this were to be true, the absence of any philosophy or religious texts from the sample is surprising. Such a hypothesis would suggest that the readers of publications such as Frontiers in Dusty Plasmas and Asymptotic Methods in Probability and Statistics are well ahead on the Zen-curve, an unlikely conclusion.

Our preferred hypothesis is that the blank PDFs provided by journals have a higher file size and cost due to their ‘added value’. This value has been added through a rigorous process of peer-review and professional copyediting, and usually takes the form of the added text. By contrast, our control IBP lacks this additional text and has not been peer-reviewed according to normal procedures. The publisher supplied pages are therefore less confusing to most readers, who would otherwise be left to infer for themselves that the pages are, in fact, blank. We are considering the addition of similar text to all blank pages in our possession, and printers.

There is nevertheless an alternative, intriguing explanation. As all writers are well aware, the writer’s block is well-established phenomenon among both professional and amateur writers. Could this be the first reported case of editor’s block? The presence of blank pages in multiple domains may imply that several editors have fallen to this creative impairment. Indeed, given the volume of published academic texts, it is unlikely that just one editor would be responsible for this series of blank pages. Unfortunately, it is not a standard practice to report the name of the editor associated with each IBP and it is therefore impossible to draw a firm conclusion. We hope that this work might instigate interest from social and behavioural specialists to further investigate this intriguing possibility.

5. Alternatives

Our analysis suggests the intentionally blank pages are flawed in a number of ways. Here we suggest some alternatives, the use of which will vary depending on the desired outcome.

Where the intention is to reassure the reader that they have come to the end of the current text, some syntactically meaningless symbols at the end of said text can indicate that it was not left blank accidentally. ‘Dingbats’ (❈♥❉♦♣ etc.) have been successfully used for this purpose. We propose that the dingbats method may now be modernised through the use of ‘emojis’. Emojis may provide a novel method of conveying to the reader that the text has ended (e.g.  – finish).

Otherwise, the traditional blank page paradigm may be maintained with some alteration to the current standard phrase. “There are only eight words on this page” provides a neat solution, or the text may be more comprehensively reformulated thus:

The page on which this statement has been printed has been intentionally left devoid of substantive content, such that the present statement is the only text printed thereon.

If using typesetting software, such as LaTeX, it may also be possible to automatically state exactly how much blank space is present on a page. This would render a message such as “This Page Intentionally Left 99.855% Blank”. A proof of concept was developed (see additional resources), by calculating the BDR in an iterative manner, meaning that this could (in theory) be applied to all intentionally blank pages. This method both eliminates the usual existential questions posed by self-reference, and is satisfyingly accurate.

If the primary intention is indeed to provide the reader with a blank page, all text should be omitted. Parallel Computational Fluid Dynamics 2000 (2001) and the control page from this study provides an example that may be replicated in other contexts.

It should be noted that a number of interesting alternatives are found outside the traditional scientific literature. Andy Griffiths’ book, Just Stupid!, begins with a cartoon snail saying: “This page would be blank if I were not here telling you that this page would be blank if I were not here telling you that…” on an endless loop. Don Novello’s, The Lazlo Letters (1977), ends with several pages marked “FREE PAPER!” Iranian novelist Reza Amirkhani’s book, Man-e-oo (‘His Ego’), reportedly contains an entire chapter consisting of blank pages. However, we have been unable to verify whether the pages remain blank when translated into English from the original Persian.

6.Directions for Future Research

In light of the significance of these new findings, we suggest that this paper represents the dawning of brave new era beginning in the field of bibliometrics. In addition to their prevalence in English, we suspect that IBPs are found in other languages. Whether these are present in the scientific literature is unknown, since the scientific community largely uses English as a lingua Franca. Regardless, further investigation may reveal further insights and as such, should be examined in much more detail.

Personal communication from ScienceDirect indicates their intention to remove these pages. This would hamper future efforts to analyse IBPs. However, blankness itself may be an interesting topic of further study, and prevalence of blankness in other areas remains unclear at this juncture. Further avenues of research that may prove fruitful include the blankness of: the digital world, such as websites and tweets; the physical world, such as walls and signs; and other aspects of academic publishing, such as footnotes,4 and even entire academic articles.

7. Conclusion

We recommend the use of our blank control page for situations where a truly blank page is desired, or where a landscape orientation is required, since publishers have not allowed for their blank pages to be used in such situations. Alternatively, the blank page from Parallel Computational Fluid Dynamics 2000 (2001) provides a peer-reviewed alternative for high-quality applications. Where there is a need to maintain the functionality of the additional text, any of the options proposed in this paper are appropriate. Indeed, different options are suitable for different applications, depending particularly on the need for brevity, accuracy, and humour in each unique case.

* * *

Afterword

It has subsequently come to our attention that ScienceDirect has taken the drastic step of removing all IBPs from its search results. In response to this development, we have taken the decision make these papers publicly available to ensure that these important contributions to science are not lost to future generations of researchers.

While we are aware that this action is in violation of copyright laws, we urge ScienceDirect, and the publishers of the IBPs, not to seek legal redress.

Additional Resources

  1. The Code of Federal Regulations of the United States of America (1984), Section 47, §61.93.
  2. Here: http://www.gao.gov/special.pubs/d01179sp.pdf
  3. Tweet dated 13 Oct 2014, @fxcoudert: https://twitter.com/fxcoudert/status/521675319322112000
  4. This footnote is intentionally left blank.

Toilet Humour

Next Wednesday is World Toilet Day. The humble toilet, “ecologically mindless” though it may be, is the subject of a surprisingly large body of research.

Are you a big chooser or a little chooser?

Are you a big chooser or a little chooser?

One of my favourite uses of the toilet, so to speak, is the ‘toilet paper problem’ in mathematics, which describes how people choose between two toilet rolls (are you a ‘big-chooser’ or a ‘little-chooser’?). The toilet has been used as a case study of ‘Multicriteria Decision Analysis’ (whatever that is), as a “specific empirical site“ to “unpack the paradoxical and ambivalent meaning and value of femininity”, and to study “French-English bilingual children’s crosslinguistic transfer in compound nouns” (because there is big difference between ‘toilet paper’ and a ‘paper toilet’).

toilet book

A little light reading

Public toilets have drawn much interest, including a whole edited volume. In an effort to ergonomically redesign the public toilet, one study tested out squat toilets with varying feet placement angles, measuring the participants’ heart rates and their subjective evaluation of comfort. 15 degrees is, apparently, the sweet spot.

And before you say that you don’t like squat toilets, consider this: a field survey in Taiwan found that almost half the population squat over public toilets anyway, believing it to be more sanitary. Amongst British women, that figure is a whopping 85%, with only 2% opting to plonk themselves directly on the seat. 12% cover the seat in toilet paper first. Apparently we are more trusting of friends: the ‘squat-rate’ drops to 38% when at someone’s house. All this is in vain of course, as no diseases are transmitted via the toilet seat. Indeed, you should be more concerned about vapourised toilet water getting on your toothbrush.

Now two papers for the male readers. The first showcases another novel use of mathematics to solve an everyday conundrum: which urinal provides the greatest protection of your personal privacy? (the ‘Urinal Problem’). If you are first to enter, the furthest urinal from the door is you best bet. After that it gets incredibly complicated!

A handy 'how-to' guide, courtesy of Eric Anderson/Wired.

A handy ‘how-to’ guide, courtesy of Eric Anderson/Wired.

The second paper, Urinal Dynamics, explores the “splash dynamics of a simulated human male urine stream”, providing some scientifically proven methods for reducing undesired splashing. The researchers wrote this “in response to harsh and repeated criticisms from our mothers and several failed relationships with women”. The paper has even been tastefully illustrated by Eric Anderson (Wes Anderson’s brother).

Finally, something we can all relate to: a note on the most bottom-friendly toilet paper. One study tested regular, recycled and moist toilet paper, using “a chronic use test and a repeated rubbing test”. Sounds grueling indeed, but the tests were disappointingly performed on the forearm only, brining its legitimacy into question. The results surprisingly show that both moist and recycled toilet paper may have an irritant effect. On your forearm.

The Best Sh*t in Academia

  • An in-depth analysis of a piece of shit, characterising ‘specimens’ into five ‘consistency categories’. Truly ridiculous methodology diagram included.
  • Shit Happens (to be Useful)! Use of Elephant Dung as Habitat by Amphibians. The author was looking for seeds inside elephant dung, as you do, and found frogs instead. In total six frogs in 290 piles of dung. So not that useful then.
  • A paper on urinary tract infections, listing K.Shit, as an author. Mr. Shit has not authored any other papers and has no profile page on his university’s website.

Enjoy World Toilet Day, don’t fall asleep on the toilet, and don’t get the toilet brush handle lodged in your brain.

Trick or Treat?

This is a slightly edited version of a post that originally appeared on the Guardian Higher Education blog.

Crime writers often refer to the ‘smell of death’ lingering in the air after a grisly murder scene is encountered. Indeed, decay starts 4 minutes after death, and produces a smell comprising a complex mélange of 800+ ‘cadaveric volatile compounds’. In a PLOS One article, a team of researchers studied a decaying pig using ‘Comprehensive Two-Dimensional Gas Chromatography-Time-of-Flight Mass Spectrometry’ (Image: warning, not very pretty). One other study investigating this topic was published in the journal Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry (which rather satisfyingly abbreviates to Anal Bioanal Chem when cited). While pigs are a fairly decent approximation of humans in such contexts, the study failed to detect two compounds, cadaverine and putrescine, usually found in decaying human cadavers. Lovely.

Sticking with death for the moment, you may recall reports of imminent doomsday due to the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012. A paper entitled The Mayan Doomsday’s effect on survival outcomes in clinical trials considered how research might be affected by our then-imminent extinction. While such trials would become useless, rigorous computer modelling showed that population actually begins to increase in the immediate aftermath of the apocalypse, even when controlling for known sources of bias (including “astronauts currently aboard the international space station… Dungeons and Dragons players, men who have read Fifty Shades of Grey and other similar beings likely to be unaffected by the apocalypse”). The only plausible explanation, obviously, is a postapocalyptic zombie repopulation.

While the world did not, in fact, end in 2012, zombies, and other mythical/undead beings nonetheless remain a concern. A truly excellent paper in Skeptical Inquirer aims to explain away zombies, ghosts, and vampires with the power of maths and physics, even though Buffy or a crossbow would definitely be way cooler. The authors start with ghosts, firstly explaining that the ‘cold chills’ often experienced in haunted houses are actually just a result of poor insulation (no EU building regs in the olden days), and secondly noting the rather amusing paradox that ghosts are often portrayed as walking, despite having no physical body. As the authors point out, “it seems strange to have a supernatural power that only allows you to get around by mimicking human ambulation… a very slow and awkward way of moving about in the scheme of things”.

Then comes vampires. Assuming vampires only feed once a month (“a highly conservative assumption given any Hollywood vampire film”), and that each time a vampire feasts upon a human their respective populations increase/decrease by 1, a simple geometric progression suggests that vampires would wipe out humans in approximately 2.5 years (assuming arbitrarily that the first vampire appeared in the year 1400). There is no way that human birth rates could outpace this, so our very existence contradicts the existence of vampires. Evidently the creator of the vampire legend failed maths.

A Norwegian study, however, believes vampires are real and that “the Balkan region has been especially haunted”. Is it possible, they ask, to repel vampires with garlic? As no vampires were available for study, leeches were used instead (hey, if pigs are a good enough approximation for humans…). As it happens, leeches by far prefer a hand smeared in garlic to one without. To ensure the future survival of the human race, the authors recommend tight restrictions be placed on the use of garlic. Speaking of vampire bites, vampire bats have a glycoprotein in their saliva that keeps the blood of the bitten victim from clotting while the bat is drinking (it is called Draculin).

Finally, we can dispense with zombies. The usual zombie paradigm is similar to vampires, thus the same mathematical logic applies. However, it is apparently also possible to be zombified by the voodoo hex of vexed enemy. In one curious case, Haitian boy Wilfrid Doricent appeared to be dead, but returned after death, without memory or effective cognition, having dug himself out of his own grave. Bizarrely, the zombie effects appear to have been cause by a poison brewed by an angry uncle, using the toxin from a puffer fish similar to that used in the Japanese delicacy Fugu. The brain damage was simply a result of hypoxia (due to the lack of oxygen available in a grave).

Scariest Pumpkin I’ve Seen This Week

pumpkin

Most Mortal Stationary I’ve Seen this Week

Staplers. Courtesy of The Lives and Deaths of Academic Staplers

staplers

After collecting morbidity and mortality data for three semesters, I am now ending my study of staplers. The final finding: On average, my library’s reference desk staplers succumbed after 46.5 days of service.

10 Comic Chemicals, presented by Chemistry Cat

This week is National Chemistry Week in the US, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to showcase some of the more unusual chemicals. To make it interesting, we also have Chemistry Cat giving his/her (?) thoughts on the comic compounds.

1. C4H4AsH
Any guesses as to the common name of this chemical? ArsoleYup, that is Arsole.

The chemists have really gone to town on this one, writing papers such as Studies on the Chemistry of the Arsolesand sticking six of them together to get a ‘sexiarsole‘. One study looks at whether arsoles smell. Due to the wonders of the academic publishing system, access to these fascinating insights will cost you $65. Other contributions to this expanding niche include Unusual Substitution in an Arsole Ring and Arsole metal complexes.

Arsole Meme

2. C20H30O4
3. C33H40O1
Vaginatin
and Clitorin 1. The name Vaginatin comes from Selinum vaginatum, the plant from which the chemical was extracted. It contains lots of oil and is used in Indian herbal medicine.

Vaginatinclitorin   4. Mg2Mg5Si8O22(OH)2 CummingtoniteA long time favourite of geologists, chemists, and other sciency types, that little lump of rock there is called Cummingtonite. It got its name from the locality where it was first found, Cummington, Massachusetts.

cat-cummingtonite

5. Apolloane
6. Rocketene
Apolloane was synthesised around the time of the Apollo 11 moon landings, and when drawn looks like a rocket. The OH is located at carbon 11, making the full name apolloane-11-ol. Legend has it that Neil Armstrong’s has a copy of the paper which named it. 2

cat-apolloane

7. Arsenical Diphenylaminechlorarsine
Adamsite is an organic compound used in riot control and chemical warfare. It was independently developed one Roger Adams in 1918. Within minutes of inhaling even the smallest amount, you will be vomiting and sneezing all over the place. Good work, Mr. Adams. It was used by the US in the Vietnam war, and is now being produced and stockpiled by North Korea.

cat-adamsite

8. Ca4Si2O6(CO3)(OH,F) 2
Fukalite
 gets its name from the Fuka mine in the Fuka region of southern Japan. It is very rare, and is a form of calcium silico-carbonate.

fukalite

8. Ca2SbMg4FeBe2Si4O20
Welshite is named after the American amateur mineralogist Wilfred R. Welsh.

9. Diethyl azodicarboxylate
This chemical is abbreviated to DEADCAT. It is toxic, shock and light sensitive, and can violently explode when heated above 100°C.

cat-deadcat

10. 3,4,4,5-tetramethylcyclohexa-2,5-dien-1-one/C10H14O
Also known as Penguinone and probably the cutest molecule ever!

1. Penguin. 2. Penguinone.

1. Penguin. 2. Penguinone.

For more penguin-themed goodness in academia, see this previous post.

 

Bonus: The final two are more chemistry thought experiments, but they are pretty cool nonetheless.

11. Chemistry: the human dimension
The Nano Putian group of chemicals are proposed in a paper called Synthesis of Anthropomorphic Molecules. Standing at a diminutive 2-nm-tall, these tiny figures have nonetheless drawn 13 citations!

The Nano Putians   The Nano Putians

 

12. Old MacDonald (had a meth lab)
Ever wondered what your childhood songs would have been like if the characters pursued alternative career paths? Well now you can get a sense of what would happen if Old MacDonald left his farm to become a professor of organic chemistry. The paper Old MacDonald Named a Compound: Branched Enynenynols, proposes some whimsical compounds as a method to teach students chemistry nomenclature rules.

Old MacDonald

Many thanks to Paul May for his incredibly comprehensive page and book on funny molecules which inspired this post.

  1. The closest that male chemists get to female anatomy?
  2. Neil has unfortunately not returned my request for comment.

I’ll Put the Kettle On: the academic’s guide to making the perfect cuppa

This is a slightly edited version of a post that originally appeared on the Guardian Higher Education blog.

As a British researcher working in France, I have struggled with an existential crisis regarding my choice of hot beverage. I have always been a tea drinker, yet the social pressure to drink coffee here is almost as overpowering as the coffee itself. My boss thinks I only drink tea to impress female colleagues, though combined with a big red beard and the French language skills of a three year old, it probably only serves to further mark me out as the office oddball.

To make matters worse, there is no communal milk, only an endless supply of olive oil, salt, and balsamic vinegar.

Not a drop of milk in sight.

Not a drop of milk in sight.

Nonetheless, I patriotically persist, following the sage advice of the UK Ministry of Munitions (1916) that “an opportunity for tea is regarded as beneficial both to health and output”.

Fellow Guardian blogger, Dean Burnett, recently discussed the science on brewing the perfect cuppa, arguing that the premise of this age-old question is itself so subjective that it can never be definitely answered. Personally, I always start out with loose-leaf Assam, filtered water, milk and white sugar, as per the Royal Society of Chemistry guidelines. And I NEVER reboil the water, perish the thought. But though the science of brewing tea has been done to death, there is an emerging field of scientific inquiry regarding best post-brew practice.

For example, sometimes I really go for it and crack out the teapot. Unfortunately, when it comes to pouring I always get that pesky dribble down the underside of the spout (the ‘teapot effect’); it drives me mad (‘first world problems’). This effect has been helpfully modelled in a Physics of Fluids paper, while a further paper, ironically written by four Frenchmen, identified a number of factors that affect dribbling. These include: “curvature of teapot lip; speed of flow; and ‘wettability’ of teapot material”. The main culprit, the ‘hydro-capillary’ effect, can easily be overcome by either thinning the spout, or by applying superhydrophobic materials to the lip.

Beating the ‘teapot effect’ with a superhydrophobic coating

Beating the ‘teapot effect’ with a superhydrophobic coating

Then comes the stirring. Or at least it would if I could ever find a teaspoon. I had often lamented the lack of information on the “displacement of teaspoons in institutional settings” in the scientific literature. Fortunately, some Aussie researchers (presumably with nothing better to do) launched a ‘longitudinal cohort study’ to figure out “Where have all the bloody teaspoons gone?” They meticulously tracked 70 teaspoons for 5 months, observing a staggering loss of 80% and a teaspoon half-life of 81 days. The researchers were, however, stumped as to why this occurs, with “escape to a spoonoid planet” being one plausible explanation.

Spoon loss

Finally, the fraught walk back to the desk, and the inevitable hand scalding as a third of the tea I just lovingly brewed sloshes onto the floor. Indeed, A paper in Physical Review E is sympathetic: “in our busy lives, almost all of us have to walk with a cup… often we spill the drink”. Researchers conducted an experimental study on beverage spillage, controlling for various walking speeds and initial liquid levels. Thankfully, I now know all the best techniques for staying within the ‘critical spill radius’ (i.e. the edge of the mug).

Motion of the liquid within the ‘critical spill radius’

Motion of the liquid within the ‘critical spill radius’

Tea isn’t really tea unless you get the biscuits involved, and academics have even overthought this simple pleasure. ‘Washburn’s Equation’ describes how liquid moves through the biscuit, while a team of mechanical engineers used a gold-plated digestive to figure out how best to dunk. You need a full cup and an angled entry, but the real trick is to flip the biscuit post-dunk so that the drier side supports the weaker side as you move from mug to mouth.

Washburn’s Equation

Washburn’s Equation

 

The Best Thing I’ve Seen This Week

Academics tweeting faux campus society announcements (#UniSocieties). My favourites include: The Statistics Society (“Stats Soc has taken delivery of large consignment of tea. There will be a student T-distribution next week.”); The Short Attention Span Society (“Will meet on… oops, I stepped in… are they serving burritos for… I forgot my…”); and The Societies Society (“promoting meta-analysis and academic overthinking”). I took this opportunity to highlight that that LSE Rugby Club will not meet at all this year, having been disbanded for their misogyny and homophobia.

Overheard on Twitter

So there you have it, the perfect cuppa from brew to biscuit, with a bit of academic humour on the side. Just don’t forget to do the washing up. Oh, and please do tweet me @AcademiaObscura if you have any spare superhydrophobic materials lying around.

Beards in Academia, Part II: More Popular than Ever? Beards and Masculinity in History

This post originally appeared over at Dr Alun Withey’s blog Follow him on twitter @DrAlun.

beard

Hipster Beard
Credit: Come2England

This week came the startling revelation that, in the past year, manufacturers of razors and related goods such as shaving foam, have seen a drop in sales of more than £72 million pounds. Market analysts IRI noted that men’s shopping habits were changing and, even though the total market still accounted for 2.2 billion pounds, this was a substantial dent. The cause of this change? Beards.

BAFTA Film Awards 2013: George Clooney Ben Affleck
Credit: Ian West/PA

Nobody can have failed to notice in recent months the ubiquity of facial hair. Keep your eyes open as you walk down your local high street and you will probably notice a variety of styles, with the ‘Amish’ style seemingly especially popular. It is also interesting how newsworthy beards are. Just look at how often they have appeared as a topic for discussion in recent months. The furore caused by Jeremy Paxman’s beard for example. There were lengthy discussions about celebrity beards at the Baftas in 2013, and now the economic revelations about how much the beard is costing.

This current beard trend is actually very interesting. Over the past 10 years or so beards have been less in vogue. There have been ‘spikes’ of beardedness but these have tended to be of short duration – sometimes only a matter of months. But this latest outcrop of beards has already lasted the better part of eighteen months. By early summer 2013 the idea of ‘peak beard’ was already being put forward. Quoting the head of a major British barbering company, the Guardian suggested that “beards are more popular than ever…there’s a beard culture – people like talking about their beards, feeling their beards’. Now, in September 2014, passion for beards shows little sign of abating and, in many ways, appears to be going from strength to strength.

It is also interesting to note how economics have begun to intrude into the argument. By anyone’s yardstick £72 million is a large chunk of revenue to be lost to what some people see as an irrelevance – something everyday, quirky…even repulsive. In reality though beards have never been anything less than central to men’s conceptions of themselves. Faces, after all, are the most public part of us. The way we present ourselves to others involves all manner of things, from clothing to cosmetics, but the face is the ultimate index of character. The decision to shave, cover or adorn the face has implications for how we see ourselves and wish to be seen by others. Beards actually matter. Quite a lot. And they always have done.

Over the centuries beard trends tended to last for decades. It’s perfectly possible to identify an historical period by its beard hair. Think of sixteenth-century England. The Tudor ‘Spade beard’ was the order of the day. This was the long, oblong outgrowth of facial topiary sported by kings, princes and elites. Doubtless it made its way a lot further down the social scale too. This type of beard is evident in Holbein’s paintings. Not all Tudor men embraced the beard though. Men like Thomas More was a clean-shaven, perhaps in line with his austere lifestyle. Thomas Cranmer was clean-shaven but, it is said, grew a beard as a symbol of his grief upon the death of Henry and of his break with the past. In this sense the beard was a turning point in his life.

Young Cranmer

Young Cranmer
Credit: Gerlach Flicke via National Portrait Gallery, London/Wikipedia

Old Cranmer!

Old Cranmer!
Credit: unknown artist, via Wikipedia

In the seventeenth century Stuart monarchs preferred small, pointed ‘Van Dyke’ beards. Charles I and Royalist ‘Cavaliers’ often sported this type of facial hair together with flowing locks. Masculinity here was remarkably feminine, with flowing, diaphanous gowns and silk breeches the order of the day. Contrast this with Puritans who generally went clean-shaven, believing beards to be a mere bauble. One argument about the origins of the term ‘roundhead’ is that it referred to the shape of the head after the beard and hair had been shaved – a popular parliamentarian style – rather than the shape of helmets.

roundhead

A Roundhead
Credit: John Pettie via Wikipedia

Victorian men, after 1850, were characterised by their huge bushy beards. After nearly a century of being clean shaven British men were exalted by a range of new publications with names like Why Shave? which sought to convince them that shaving was little less than a crime against God and nature. The beard was the ultimate symbol of masculinity, and something used as a tool to prove to men that their position of superiority over women was justified. More than this, it was argued, beards had health benefits that simply couldn’t be ignored. They acted as filters to keep germs away from the nose and throat. (See my other post on Victorian beard health).

In the twentieth century, at least up until around 1950, moustaches were much more in vogue. Charlie Chaplin’s ‘toothbrush’ moustache was a cultural icon. Whether or not (as is sometimes suggested) Adolf Hitler grew his because of Chaplin, whose work he admired, is another matter, but the military moustache was a staple of the first decades of the century, from British Tommies to the emblematic RAF pilot’s moustache.

Mighty Beard

Mighty Beard
Credit: hanslangseth.com

There are many other important aspects to beards. Growing a beard has been an important marker of life stage; the transition from adolescence to adulthood. The first shave is a virtual rite of passage for a teenage boy. On the other hand, in the past, the ‘beardless boy’ has been a symbol of immaturity or even of a lack of sexual prowess.

Indeed the ability to grow a beard has been central to conceptions of masculinity through time. In the early modern period the lack of a beard was viewed in humoural medical terms as the result of a lack of heat in the ‘reins’ and therefore a lack of sexual potency. Men who had a thin, scanty beard were open to suspicion of effeminacy (in the early modern sense literally meaning that they had feminine characteristics). In the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries, so central was the moustache to military regiments that men unable to grow one were expected to wear a false moustache made of goats hair.

The management of facial hair says much about how men view themselves. During the enlightenment the mark of a civilized man was a clean-shaven face. To be bearded signified loss of control over the self and a rugged masculinity that was not elegant or refined. After 1850, however, as I have noted, the fashion was for huge beards, which were seen then as the ultimate symbol of God-given male authority. In this sense it was the emblem of the Victorian man.

How d'ye like me?

How d’ye like me?
Source: Wikipedia

After 1900 with the burgeoning market for shaving apparel and cosmetics the situation became even more complex. It is also noteworthy that the pace of change has quickened. Where beard trends used to last decades, since the 80s they have become more fleeting – probably a result of internet-driven celebrity culture.

If all this is true, what does the current vogue for facial hair tell us about men today? What ideal of masculinity are men in 2014 aspiring to? It is difficult to say. Unlike in the past it is harder to track changes in masculine ideal as they are now much more transitory. Nonetheless, one of the constants has been emulation. In the early modern period monarchs provided a bearded (or indeed clean-shaven) ideal. By the Victorian period powerful and fashionable figures, and new types of industrial and military heroes, offered men something to aspire to. Now, with almost unlimited access to the lives of celebrities through the voracious media and internet, the opportunities to find fashion ‘heroes’ to emulate are almost limitless. The question now is how long this trend will last and, perhaps more interesting, will there be a backlash against the beard? History suggests so.

DrAlunThis post originally appeared over at Dr Alun Withey’s blog Follow him on twitter @DrAlun.

Proof that academia is teeming with humour, wit… and general oddness

This post originally appeared on my Guardian Higher Education blog.

Though we academics are often maligned for our perceived stuffiness, academia is in fact teeming with humour, wit, and general oddness. This blog, which I have every intention of publishing every two weeks (lest it perish), is my attempt to collate some of this oddity for your Friday procrastination and amusement.

This first post hails the progenitor of much academic obscurity, the Ig Nobel prizes. The Igs, which recognise research that “first makes people laugh then makes them think”, recently celebrated its 24th first annual award ceremony.

The ceremony has been described as “a collection of, like, actual Nobel Prize winners giving away prizes to real scientists for doing f’d-up things… it’s awesome”. Indeed, one scientist, the flamboyant Andre Geim, has won both an Ig and a real Nobel; the former for levitating a frog using really strong magnets and the latter for the development of graphene. (Geim also co-authored a paper with his pet hamster, Tisha.)

My favourites from this year include:

  • dogs defecating research

    An image taken from the published study. Photograph: Hart et al.

    A study finding that dogs align their body axis with Earth’s north-south geomagnetic field lines while they are “doing their business”. This necessitated the rigorous scientific observation of no fewer than 1,893 defecations.

  • A study measuring the frictional forces at play when a person steps on a banana skin.
  • A study entitled, ‘Seeing Jesus in Toast’. It’s about seeing Jesus in toast.
  • A medical report documenting the stemming of severe nosebleeds by stuffing strips of cured pork up the nostrils (you literally couldn’t make this stuff up).
  • A study in which researchers play dress up to see how reindeer react to humans disguised as polar bears. The authors shirked the usual convention of publishing in the most appropriate journal available by choosing not to publish in the ultra-specific Rangifer: Research, Management and Husbandry of Reindeer and Other Northern Ungulates.

For the sacrilegious academics who slipped away from academia, there are still opportunities to win: the economics prize went to the Italian government’s National Institute of Statistics. They admittedly don’t sound like such a fun bunch, but when the meddling powers at the EU mandated that each member increase the size of its economy, the Institute took the lead by counting a range of “innovative” revenues in its accounts, including those from prostitution, illegal drug sales, smuggling, and other unlawful financial transactions.

The Igs are almost as popular as the real Nobels these days. Marc Abrahams, the organiser, reckons that many want to follow in Geim’s footsteps, conducting studies with the sole aim of netting an Ig. About 10-20% of the 9,000 nominations received each year are self-nominations from self-appointed academic-comedians (academedians?!).

The Igs spawned an accompanying journal, the Annals of Improbable Research, in turn no doubt inspiring the Journal of Universal Rejection, which rejects every submission received, and the recently launched Proceedings of the Natural Institute of Science, whose acronym (PNIS) speaks for itself.

And so it is that this humble blog reaches you, merely the latest in a long line of academics trying to prove their unstuffiness. We hope you enjoy it!

The best thing I’ve seen this week
The hashtag #AcademicInsults was trending this week, proving that academics can be as cruel as they can be funny. The most withering and sharp-tongued offerings concern poorly written papers (“Some journal with a low impact factor will be happy to take that”), viva pep talk (“Don’t worry, you can still get a job as a sales rep”), and your general lack of worth in the field to which you have dedicated your life (“Oh sorry, I’m not aware of your work”).

Overheard on Twitter