Cars on Campus Rooftops and R2D2 Observatories: 6 awesome college pranks

1) Spruced up statues

Many university campuses have statues of mascots or key figures from the institution’s history – and dressing them up has become a longstanding tradition the world over. One dramatic failed attempt to dress up a campus statue is particularly worth highlighting. In 1958, a group of students at the University of California, Los Angeles, thought it would be a good idea to coat the Tommy Trojan statue on rival University of Southern California campus in manure. Incredibly, the students rented a helicopter to dump their cargo, but the manure got sucked up into the helicopter’s rotor blades, spraying the students with a taste of their own medicine. Poor Tommy has been the subject of so many pranks (including having his sword repositioned in a rather uncomfortable manner) that the school has installed a live webcam to deter further assaults on his integrity.

r2d2_science_building2) Remodeled campus buildings

Not content with desecrating statues, a few enterprising students at Carleton College remodelled a whole building, transforming the university’s observatory into a huge replica of R2D2. The swivelling of the telescope makes it the perfect medium, and the likeness even comes complete with all the robotic beeps of the original. Check out the YouTube video.

3) Cars hoisted onto university buildings

All the way back in 1958, Peter Davey of Cambridge University started the trend of sticking a car on the roof of a campus building. The Austin Seven he chose made the 70ft climb to the top of the Senate House after months of planning, reams of calculations, and help from students who volunteered to surreptitiously erect scaffolding. It took a week to get the car down afterwards. In 1994 some MIT students followed suit, this time hoisting a (fake) campus security car atop Building 10 and issuing it with a parking ticket.

4) Angered football fans

Source: Wikipedia

This one really only works in the US, where college football games attract thousands of spectators. The 1961 Rosebowl was watched by 100,000 and millions more who tuned in on TV. All were shocked when fans held up cards which, taken together, read “CALTECH”. Tiny Caltech is not known for its sporting prowess, and were not on the pitch. Apparently, some crafty Caltech students had managed to fool a cheerleader that they were journalists, break into the cheerleaders’ hotel rooms, and switch the cards and instructions.

No doubt inspired by this stunt, in 2004 two Yale seniors and 20 of their friends dressed as the fictional “Harvard Pep Squad”, walked into Harvard’s football stadium and convinced almost 2,000 unsuspecting fans to unwittingly spell out the words “WE SUCK”.

5) Fake students

One of the earliest university pranksters was Georgia tech student William Edgar Smith. He received an extra enrolment form when he signed up for his studies in 1927 and filled one out for the imaginary George P Burdell. Smith completed coursework for his fictitious friend, earning him a very real degree. Burdell has since become the stuff of university legend, earning a number of additional degrees and being admitted as a member to many clubs. Barrack Obama even got in on the joke, saying that George was meant to introduce him but that he was nowhere to be found.

Fake students need not even be human, and matriculated animals have frequently been used to call out equally fraudulent institutions. There is a “List of Animals with Fraudulent Diplomas” maintained on Wikipedia.

6) Silly school traditions

In the town of Göttingen in Germany, recently minted doctoral graduates rush off to kiss a statue of Lizzy, aka “Goose Girl” (Gänseliesel) at a fountain in front of the mediaeval town hall. In Wisconsin, students have been placing plastic pink flamingos on the main lawn at graduation since 1978.

Does your university have a history of foolish pranks? Have you hung a giant bra from a balcony or stolen a priceless George III cannon and welded a brass rat to it? Share your story @AcademiaObscura.

This post originally appeared on the Guardian Higher Education Network.

An Academic Guide to Love & Romance – Happy Valentine’s Day!

This post originally appeared on the Guardian Higher Education Network.

Whether you find yourself alone this Valentine’s Day, or you just need some top tips on pleasing your partner, our guide to love is sure to help. So put down your pen, back away from the UCLA Loneliness Scale, and read on.

If you do happen to find yourself alone, there are some reasons to be thankful. A study of 5,000 American adults found that you are still better off alone than in a dysfunctional relationship. Those in strained and unsupportive relationships were significantly more likely to develop depression compared with singletons.

Be careful though, unhealthy relationships are easy to fall into once you have been alone for a while, and research confirms that people settle for less due to a fear of being lonely. Best not to start dating during your PhD then, as this is likely the loneliest you will ever feel.

When the search for love commences, a tool created by Ben Schmidt could help. Intended to analyse gendered use of words in reviews on Rate My Professor, Schmidt’s nifty app can also narrow down your field of search for a potential mate. For example, a search for “cute” will show that the language department is the place to go, regardless of your sexual preference, while if it is intelligence you seek, philosophy and political science is where you shall find it. If you aren’t a fan of elbow patches and tweed, best steer clear of the music school.

Once you are partnered up, get into the sack as often as possible. More sex means fewer colds, not to mention that it is just plain good exercise​. There is a vast sexology literature that can be drawn on to improve your love life.

For those interested in the female orgasm, I give you the only piece of advice you will ever need, probably: ensure that the woman is wearing socks. In one study, only half of the women were able to reach orgasm, but this jumped to 80% upon the provision of socks. Warm and cosy feet calm the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, the brain regions responsible for anxiety and fear.

Even if you do find a mate and manage to live happily ever after in a blissful bubble of heteronormativity, love might still get you in the end. Being in a relationship is the most common cause of weight gain (according to research reported by the Daily Mail. I’ll say no more), and the medical literature is replete with cases of Broken Heart Syndrome. A 70 year-old woman with no prior heart problems collapsed in hospital after being informed that her husband of 45 years had died. While this is the stuff of urban legend, the jury is still out on the causal link.

The academic Twittersphere has been particularly amusing, if a little cynical, as Valentine’s Day approaches. The hashtag how to ruin a date with an academic in five words has academics pitching in with pithy comments on how not to wine and dine them:

Others have used the occasion to have a dig at the broken model of academic publishing:

#ScienceValentines is a little more warm and fuzzy, if asteroids and cold fusion are your cup of tea:

However, the romantic side of scientists apparently only extends so far, as Guardian blogger Dean Burnett demonstrates:

Best of luck in all your romantic and academic endeavours. Tweet me @AcademiaObscura and let us know how you fare. If this guide hasn’t helped you, then lock the doors, crack open a bottle of wine, and spend the evening writing that latest paper by candlelight. So romantic.

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.

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


Most Mortal Stationary I’ve Seen this Week

Staplers. Courtesy of The Lives and Deaths of Academic 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.

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.

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