A New Academic Year Begins… Bring on the Ig Nobels!

Summer is, sadly, over. Freshers week is, thankfully, also over. And yet another academic year kicked off with that most amusing of academic traditions: the Ig Nobel Prizes.

This year the Ig Nobels, which recognise research that “first makes people laugh then makes them think”, celebrated its 25th first annual award ceremony.

In case you’ve never heard of the Ig Nobels, they are described by singer Amanda Palmer, herself a little off-the-wall, as “a collection of, like, actual Nobel Prize winners giving away prizes to real scientists for doing f’d-up things…”

Ig Nobels Harvard

For a quarter-century, the Igs have been dishing out prizes for unusual research, ranging from the infamous case study of homosexual necrophilia in ducks, to the 2001 patent issued for a “circular transportation facilitation device” (i.e. a wheel).

The award ceremony takes place in Harvard’s largest theatre and resembles something akin to the Oscars crossed with the Rocky Horror Show. The lucky winners, drawn from a field of 9,000 hopefuls, are indeed presented their prize by a one of a “group of genuine, genuinely bemused Nobel Laureates”.

Michael Smith

In 2010, one scientist became the first to win both an Ig and a real Nobel: Sir Andre Geim was awarded the former for his work on graphene, and the latter for levitating a frog with super strong magnets (Geim also co-authored a paper with his pet hamster, Tisha).

By the far the most bizarre this year is a study in which chickens were fitted with prosthetic tails to see if their modified gait could provide clues as to how dinosaurs walked (yes, there is a video).

Sans titre

Other gems this year include:

  • A chemical recipe to partially un-boil an egg.
  • A paper answering the question: “Is ‘Huh’ A Universal World?”
  • A series of studies looking at the biomedical benefits, and consequences, of intense kissing.

If you are looking for a bit of distraction after the whirlwind of the first weeks of term, you can watch the whole ceremony online, or explore all the prizes to date with this neat data viz tool.

As is now the norm, the whole thing was also live-tweeted (#IgNobel). In fact, the Igs employ an “official observer” to linger on stage, head buried in smartphone, for this purpose.

Elsewhere on Twitter this week, I discovered:

  • That animated gifs make for great academic metaphors:

    • That the resident penguin at the University of Portsmouth library has its own account:

  • That National Punctuation Day is a thing:

The Portrayal of Academics in Kids Books – a chat with Melissa Terras

Melissa Terras is Director of the Centre for Digital Humanities and a Professor of Digital Humanities at University College London (UCL). She is also an expert on the portrayal of academics in kids’ books, having meticulously analysed over 200 titles. Melissa took some time to chat with me about her fascinating project. You can check it out here, and follow Melissa on twitter @melissaterras.

“I have a son, aged 7, and twins, aged 4. We buy, and read, a lot of books”, Melissa tells me when I ask how this all started. “One week I spotted a couple of profs in books, so I tweeted about it and posted pictures on a tumblr blog“.

Dr Seuss, Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? Random House Books for Young Readers, 1973.

One of the original cohort, Dr. de Breeze. Dr Seuss, Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? Random House Books for Young Readers, 1973.

This on-a-whim posting ultimately turned into a full-blown research project spanning four years and costing somewhere in the region of £2,000. Melissa has amassed a library of books, containing 281 academic characters. Each character is meticulously logged, along with various attributes, in a big spreadsheet.

The earliest appearance of an academic in a kids book goes all the way back to 1860, a time when the world had far fewer higher education institutions. Indeed, given the exponential growth of universities and the publication of 1.6m English language kids books in the intervening 150 years, 281 academics seems disappointingly low.

Also disappointing is the unrepresentative picture that the books paint. “There are some truly lovely books”, Melissa says, “but there is also a lot of lazy stereotyping”. Academics tend to be either crazy evil egotists (like Dr Frankensteiner, the “maddest mad scientist on mercury!”), whilst the Professors tend to be kindly, but baffled, obsessive egg-heads who don’t quite function normally. 

Across all the books, there are a mere 13 women and 3 minorities represented. Only one character is both – Professor Wiseman from Curious George, is a described as “American, likely with Indian ancestry”. There is some surprising variety though – Professor Peabody is a vegetable.

Professor Peabody, by Giles Reed, Illustrations by Angela Mitson. 1979. Studio Publications (Ipswich) Limited.

Professor Peabody, by Giles Reed, Illustrations by Angela Mitson. 1979. Studio Publications (Ipswich) Limited.

Doktor Bunsen van der Dunkel, rocket scientist, in: Moon Man, by Tomi Ungerer, 2009, Phaidon Press Inc, NY.

Doktor Bunsen van der Dunkel, rocket scientist, in: Moon Man, by Tomi Ungerer, 2009, Phaidon Press Inc, NY.

“I am often searching for new finds in the little bits of spare time I get throughout the day, dipping into library catalogues during quiet moments or introductory presentations at conferences”. Fortunately she hasn’t always had to do the digging herself, as librarians from all over the world have been contacting her to help expand the search.

The project hasn’t only been a source of enjoyment, but also a welcome slice of solitude: “I am used to working on projects with 15 people, so it is a treat to be doing something that is truly mine.”

The project has had surprising benefits for Melissa’s work: “By searching catalogues for these very specific items I have learned a lot about library systems architecture”. One example, which links back to Melissa’s core research on library and archive digitisation, is on-demand digitisation – she found that you can pay a small fee to have works from certain libraries digitised for you.

Professor Blabbermouth on the Moon, by Nigel Watts, illustrated by Jamie Smith. 1996, Scholastic Children’s Books, London.

Professor Blabbermouth on the Moon, by Nigel Watts, illustrated by Jamie Smith. 1996, Scholastic Children’s Books, London.

I ask Melissa if she has any favourite characters, and her passion really shines through as she recalls the eccentric Professor Blabbermouth (she’s “as bright as buttons” with “enough university degrees to paper her toilet walls”!) and Dr. Hatchett, who, having failed to find an academic job after her English Literature PhD, now teaches primary school pirates. Boffin Boy, a book written for older kids that are struggling with reading, has proven consistently popular with the whole family.

Like all great academic projects, the work here is unlikely to ever be finished. So what’s next? Melissa is currently working on a paper setting out her findings, but after that there is the entire non-Anglophone world. Melissa has already found 50 or so books in Dutch (which she can speak a little), and thinks it likely that a treasure trove of characters awaits in other languages.

The research clearly demonstrates the need for some more representative characters, and I suggest that Melissa could make her own foray into the world of children’s books. “I would love to do it”, she says without hesitation, “but I can’t draw and I’ve never written for kids! What I’d need is a partner”. Hopefully a future step for the project will be a book that academics would be comfortable happy to read as their children’s bedtime story

Until then, we will have to make do with male, mad, and muddleheaded.

Male, Mad and Muddleheaded! The portrayal of academics in kids books

2014me_weeMelissa Terras is Director of the Centre for Digital Humanities and a Professor of Digital Humanities at University College London (UCL). She is also an expert on the portrayal of academics in kids’ books, having meticulously analysed over 200 titles. You can check out the project here, and follow Melissa on twitter @melissaterrasCheck out the interview with Melissa here.

Like many academics, I love books. Like many book-loving parents, I’m keen to share that love with my young children. Two years ago, I chanced upon two different professors in children’s books, in quick succession. Wouldn’t it be a fun project, I thought, to see how academics, and universities, appear in children’s illustrated books? This would function both as an excuse to buy more books (we do live in a golden age of second hand books, cheaply delivered to your front door) and to explain to my kids – now five and a half, and twins of three – what Mummy Actually Does.

seuss

Dr Seuss. Credit: London Public Library (CC BY-NC-ND)

It turns out it’s hard to search just for children’s books, and picture books, in library catalogues, but I combed through various electronic library resources, as well as Amazon, eBay, LibraryThing, and Abe, to dig up source material. I began to obsessively search the bookshelves of kids books in friend’s houses, and doctors and dentist and hospital waiting rooms, whilst also keeping on the look out on our regular visits to our local library: often academics appear in books without being named in the title, so don’t turn up easily via electronic searches.

Parking my finds on a devoted Tumblr which was shared on social media, friends, family members, and total strangers tweeted, facebooked, and emailed me to suggest additions. People sidled up to me after invited guest lectures to whisper “I have a good professor for you…” Two years on, I’ve no doubt still not found all of the possible candidates, but new finds in my source material are becoming less frequent. 101 books (or individual books from a series*) and 108 academics, and a few specific mentions of university architecture and systems later, its time to look at the results from a survey of the representation of academics and academia in children’s picture books.

What are academics in children’s books like?

The 108 academics found consist of 76 Professors, 21 Academic Doctors, 2 Students, 2 Lecturers, 1 Assistant Professor, 1 Child, 1 Astronomer, 1 Geographer, 1 Medical Doctor who undertakes research, 1 researcher, and 1 lab assistant. In general, the Academic Doctors tend to be crazy mad evil egotists (“It’s Dr Frankensteiner – the maddest mad scientist on mercury!”), whilst the Professors tend to be kindly, but baffled, obsessive egg-heads who dont quite function normally.

The academics are mostly (old, white) males. Out of the 108 found, only 9 are female: 90% of the identified academics are male, 8% are female, and 2% have no identifiable gender (there are therefore much fewer women in this cohort than in reality, where it is estimated that one third of senior research posts are occupied by women).  They are also nearly all caucasian: only two of those identified are people of colour: one Professor, and one child who is so smart he is called The Prof: both are male: this is scarily close to the recent statistic that only 0.4% of the UK professoriat are black. 43% of those found in this corpus are are elderly men, 33% are middle aged (comprising of 27% male and 6% female, there are no elderly female professors, as they are all middle age or younger). The women are so lacking that the denoument of one whodunnit/ solve the mystery/ choose your own adventure book for slightly older children is that the professor they have been talking about was actually a woman, and you didn’t see that coming, did you? Ha!

total no

The earliest published academic in a children’s book found was in 1922 (although its probable that the real craze for featuring baffled old men came after the success of Professor Branestawm, which was a major international bestseller, first published in 1933, and not out of print since). The first woman Professor found is the amazing Professor Puffendorf – billed as “the world’s greatest scientist” -,  published in 1992, 70 years after the first male professor appears in a children’s book. 70 years (although it is frustrating that the book really isn’t about her, but what her jealous, male lab assistant gets up to in her lab when she goes off to a conference. More Puffendorf next time, please).

There is also a more recent phenomenon of using a Professor as a framing device to suggest some gravitas to a book’s subject, but the professor themselves does not appear in any way within the text, so its impossible to say if they are male or female.  Male Professors in children’s books have appeared much more frequently over the past ten years: women not so much.

What areas do these fictional academics work in? (There is an entirely different genre of children’s books covering the lives of real academics – but that’s for another obsessive compulsive mini research project). Here we identify the subject areas of the 108 academics:

field

Most of the identified academics work in science, engineering and technology subjects. 31% work in some area of generic “science”, 10% work in biology, a few in maths, paleontology, geography, and zoology, and lone academics in rocket science, veterinary science, astronomy, computing, medical research and oceanography. There is one prof who is a homeopath, and I wasnt sure whether to put them in STEM or Fiction, so I plumped for STEM as they seemed to be trying to see if homeopathy worked (I like to presume all the academics here have proper qualifications, but who knows if fictional characters can buy professorships online these days). Subjects classed as Fictional were serpentology, dragonology, and magic. Arts, Humanities and Social Science subjects identified are archaeology (6% of the total), and linguistics, psychology, arts and theatre.

27% of those with an academic title make no reference to what type of area they supposed to work in: they are generally just trying to take over the world. Just out of interest, the female academics identify their subject areas as serpentologymathspaleontologyecology, and three generic scientists (with two further unknown subjects), so its not as is the women are doing the “soft” subjects in children’s books, when they actually appear.

Not all of these academics featured are humans: 74% are human, 19% are animals, 4% are aliens, 2% are unknown, and 1% are vegetable.  There are no discernible trends regarding animals that are chosen to represent wisdom – its not like they are all owls – with three mice, three dogs, two toads, a kingfisher, a gorilla, a woodpecker, a pig, a crow, an owl, a dumbo octopus, a mole, a bumble bee, a shark, a cockroach, and a wooden bird. If you spot any defining similarities there, let me know.

There are some other fun trends to note. 46% of those humans featured are bald (higher than the average percentage?) – no women are bald. 35% had very big, messy hair, and it seems to be that if you are in academia, you should be a bit disheveled, in general. 45% have white hair – but none of the women have white hair. 13% had ginger hair (higher than the average percentage?). 37% had moustaches, and 16% had beards (higher than the average percentage?) – but no women had facial hair.  What they wore is also interesting:

attire

Labcoats, suits (but not if you are female!) or safari suits (but not if you are female!) are the academic uniform du jour.

The names given to the academics are telling, with the majority being less than complimentary: Professor Dinglebat, Professor P. Brain, Professor Blabbermouth, Professor Bumblebrain, ProfessorMuddlehead, Professor Hogwash, Professor Bumble, Professor Dumkopf, Professor Nutter, and two different Professor Potts. There is the odd professor with a name that alludes to intelligence: Professor I.QProfessor InklingProfessor Wiseman, but those are in the minority.

What types of book are they featured in? 82% of the 101 books are fiction stories, and the theme of the stories tends to be “academic is out of touch with how the world works, with hilarious consequences” in the case of professors, or “is evil and wants to take over the world, but is thwarted by our plucky hero (never heroine)” in the case of doctors. 7% of the books are factual, using a fictional academic to explain how science or experiments work, and 1% are cookbooks.

The remainder, 10%, are a curious genre I have called “tall tales” – where the fictional academic character is brought in to bring gravitas and explain something, but the explanations are either fictional or bordering on fiction. Its a curious blend of science and fiction: they are not traditional stories, but work in a way which subverts the traditional children’s science books, injecting fiction into the process (not very succesfully, in most cases).

What can we draw from this? If you are going to be a fictional human academic in a children’s book, you are most likely to be an elderly, old man, with big white hair, who wears a lab coat, has facial hair, works in science, and is called Professor SomethingDumb or Dr CrazyPants, featuring in a story about how you bumble around causing some type of chaos. Close your eyes and think of a Professor. Is this what you see? Or this?  (One wonders how much well-circulated images of Einstein have perculated into the subconscious of writers and publishers to emerge as the obvious representation of an academic in children’s illustrated books).

Universities in Children’s Picture Books

What about the universities themselves? They dont feature as often as the academics associated with them – the focus of children’s books is seldom about such an institution that will have an effect so far in the future of the reader, although some characters plan well ahead in advance. Lectures, when depicted, are obviously very boring and impenetrable. University buildings are like castle schools for grown ups or  the site of secret underground lairs or the best holiday park ever. There are a couple of sweet kids books from the USA that attempt to describe the university campus and rituals of specific actual colleges – Baylor University and Boston College.  But in general, the children’s books revolve around the characters, rather than the fact they are in a university, per se.

Why is this relevant?

Obviously, this has been a bit of a fun project. Given the lengths gone to to gather this corpus of children’s books, it is unlikely that any individual child would happen across all of the books noted. It’s actually interesting to think how few children’s picture or illustrated books feature academics or academia (at time of writing, Amazon lists 1.3 million books in its children’s section, and 101* different books (or books series) were identified in this project). While no doubt there are other books out there not on the list, this has been a darn good crack at finding as many as possible, not only in the English Language. Professors and academic Doctors in children’s books are a useful device on occasion, but really are not terribly frequent in the scheme of things.

That said, the difference in gender, and how women and men are represented, and the underepresentation of those who are anything but white in children’s books about academia, is shocking, especially given that almost all scientific fields are still dominated by men, and women are frequently discriminated against and although 46% of all PhD graduates in the EU are female, only 1/3 of senior research posts are occupied by women.

At a time when researchers are asking if available toys can influence later career choice, can the same be said about books? At a time when it is becoming the parents’ job to encourage girls into science and technology – and to educate all children about science and engineering careers – does the lack of anything but white, old men as academics in children’s books reinforce the impossibility of anyone other than those making a contribution? At a time when the leaky pipe of academia shows that women are leaving in droves at every level of the academic ladder, should we be worried that there are no female academics in children’s books above middle age?

Laugh at this analysis if you will, but sociological analysis of other children’s books has shown that

there is a hidden language or code inscribed in children’s books, which teaches kids to view inequalities within the division of labor as a “natural” fact of life  – that is, as a reflection of the inherent characteristics of the workers themselves.  Young readers learn (without realizing it, of course) that some… are simply better equipped to hold manual or service jobs, while other[s]… ought to be professionals. Once this code is acquired by pre-school children… it becomes exceedingly difficult to unlearn.  As adults, then, we are already predisposed to accept the hierarchical, caste-based system of labor that characterizes the… workplace. [link]

Another analysis of 6000 children’s books published between 1900 and 2000 suggests the gender disparity, and the lack of women characters, sends children a message that “women and girls occupy a less important role in society than men or boys”:

The messages conveyed through representation of males and females in books contribute to children’s ideas of what it means to be a boy, girl, man, or woman. The disparities we find point to the symbolic annihilation of women and girls, and particularly female animals, in 20th-century children’s literature, suggesting to children that these characters are less important than their male counterparts… The disproportionate numbers of males in central roles may encourage children to accept the invisibility of women and girls and to believe they are less important than men and boys, thereby reinforcing the gender system. [link]

As for the diversity issue – in general, children’s books have been shown to be stubbornly white, even though “children of all ethnicities and races need role models of all ethnicities and races. That breeds normalcy and acceptance, and it’s good for everybody. [link]” What we are seeing here in this corpus, then, is a microcosm of what is happening in children’s literature in general, although played out alongside an ongoing debate about the involvement of women and minorities in the academy. That doesn’t make it ok, mind.

There are wider nuances, though, that don’t just involve headcounts of men and women, black and white. Children’s perceptions of scientists have been shown to be based on various stereotypes, and the stereotypes of academics presented and promulgated in these books is the product of writers and publishers who, taken together, quite clearly don’t think academics are much cop, which will percolate back to those who read the books, or have the books read to them. Academics are routinely shown as individuals obsessed with one topic who are either baffled and harmless and ineffectual, or malicious, vindictive and psychotic, and although these can be affectionate sketches (“bless! look at the clueless/psychopathic genius!”) academics routinely come across as out of touch weirdos – and what is that teaching kids about universities?

In this age of proving academic “impact”, it might be not so bad for us to be able to show we were relevant to society? That there is more to academia than science? Or for the kids books I show my kids to have more positive and integrated representations of professors and academics? Perhaps this is not the role of kids books though, and I should just be telling my kids my own tales of academic derring-do.

I mean, who would spend two years gathering a corpus of kids lit for fun, and then count how many beards the people in the books had. Weirdos. Weirdos, the lot of them.

This post originally appeared on LSE’s Impact of Social Sciences blog and is reposted with minor formatting/spacing modifications under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License (and with permission of the author).

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

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.

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

Beards in Academia

To sport a beard signifies something.
Stories are not generally written about being clean shaven.
Aristotle1

It seems like beards are everywhere these days, having made a bit of a hipster-fuelled comeback. Yet academics know that they have been the bastion of beards for many decades. In honour of World Beard Day (September 6), we are taking a look at the furry, fluffy world of academic beards.

Peak Beard
Like all good things, the beard craze must come to an end, and one recent study suggested that we will soon hit ‘peak beard’. That is, the point at which having a beard is too common, and therefore undesirable from an evolutionary perspective. Thus leaving academics alone with their beards once again. The paper, published in Biology Letters and entitled Negative frequency-dependent preferences and variation in male facial hair, tested “whether frequency of beardedness modulates perceived attractiveness of men’s facial hair, a secondary sexual trait subject to considerable cultural variation”.

The authors showed study participants a range of faces, manipulating the frequency of bearded faces, and then measured preference for four ‘levels of beardedness’. Both women and men reported heavy stubble and full beards to be more attractive when presented with a set of faces in which beards were rare. Similarly, clean-shaven faces were least attractive when such faces were most common, and more attractive when rare.

Such peaks are not uncommon. A previous review of facial hair styles in recent history found that sideburns peaked in 1853, moustaches in 1877, and beards in 1892. Moustaches subsequently had a renaissance, before peaking again from 1917 to 1919. The same study also noted a correlation between the prevalence of beards and skirt widths, as shown in the following graph:

beardskirts

To Beard or not to Beard?
Studies have come up with mixed results on whether beards make you more or less attractive. In one study, full beards rated highest for parenting ability and healthiness, while in another, bearded men with an aggressive facial expression were rated as significantly more aggressive than the same men when clean-shaven.2 Another study even considered, in detail, the effect of the participants’ menstrual cycles on their perceptions. The peak beard study itself concludes that beards “role in facial attractiveness is equivocal.”

Indeed, in Beards: an archaeological and historical overview, the author notes:

beards have been ascribed various symbolic attributes, such as sexual virility, wisdom and high social status, but conversely barbarism, eccentricity and Satanism

Darwin himself posited that beards “evolved in human ancestors via female choice as a highly attractive masculine adornment”. But then, he might have been a little biased:

Charles-Darwin-1

Beards and Biological Warfare
Do you have a beard? Do you work in a lab containing dangerous microorganisms? Do you worry that your facial appendage may harbour microorganisms that will endanger your family and friends? Well, we’ve got just the study for you. Microbiological Laboratory Hazard of Bearded Men, published in Applied Microbiology all the way back in 1967, sought to “evaluate the hypothesis that a bearded man subjects his family and friends to risk of infection if his beard is contaminated by infectious microorganisms while he is working in a microbiological laboratory”.

One wonders where exactly this concern came from. The authors kindly fill us in, noting that:

After many years of absence from the laboratory scene, beards are now being worn by some persons working with pathogenic microorganisms

Heaven forbid! What ensues is a rather bizarre study and a series of amusing photographs. In short, the study involved spraying some pathogens on some bearded guys faces (specifically 73 day old beards), washing the faces using one of two methods (figure 1), and then collecting some beard dust to see if the pathogens were still there (figure 2).

beardwashing

Figure 1: “each man lathered his beard with a soap containing 2% hexachlorophene and then rinsed it by one of two beard-washing methods:(i) a splashing method, by cupping the hands to catch the water and then splashing the water across the face; or (ii) a shower stream method, by placing the face directly under the stream of water from the shower head.

Figure 2:

Figure 2: “techniques for recovering microorganisms from beards”.

Finally, the study tested the pathogen-infested beards on chicks using a creepy human-beard-mannequin, resulting in what is surely one of the strangest photos ever published in a scientific paper.

Figure 3: "Each of three 6-week-old chickens was held with its head alternately nestled in the beard and stroked across one-third of the beard (one chicken on each side and one on the chin) for 5 min".

Figure 3: “Each of three 6-week-old chickens was held with its head alternately nestled in the beard and stroked across one-third of the beard (one chicken on each side and one on the chin) for 5 min”.

After much contamination, washing, and the needless death of a few chickens, the authors find that a beard would only pose a risk following a “recognizable microbiological accident with a persistent highly infectious microorganism” or if the wearer was “engaged in a repetitious operation that aerosolized a significant number of organisms”. Or, presumably, in the event of biological warfare.

Beards and the Sun
So that lovely beard of yours may harbour a few pathogens, but could it protect your precious face from the harmful effects of the suns UV rays? Fortunately, a bunch of Australian researchers already conducted a Dosimetric investigation of the solar erythemal UV radiation protection provided by beards and mustaches to answer this pressing question. They even went as far to consider different beard lengths and the angle of the sun!

More unusual apparatus from the world of beard research.

More unusual apparatus from the world of beard research.

They conclude that some protection is provided, but not all that much. Probably best to stick to the sunscreen.

This Incredible Academic Beard from 1973

Bearded Women
Finally we bring you this thesis, on How Facial Hair Influences Women’s Everyday Experiences. An unusual thesis topic though this may be, the work does raise some salient points about body image and gender. In this vein, the author starts of with a bold dedication, which we shall end this post on:

bearddedication

Bonus reading

  1. OK, not really. Actually just the personal experiences of some bearded dude living in South Korea (http://www.grantkien.com/2012/12/27/beard-stories-signification-of-facial-hair-in-and-out-of-south-korea-grant-kien-2005/). But it sounds much better with Aristotle.
  2. Presumably bearded men should simply refrain from pulling faces.