The Second Annual Academics with Cats Awards!

You asked for it, and here it is! The Second Academics with Cats Awards launches today!

cat logo

How to enter

Simple! Check out the categories below and tweet your finest cat pics (with caption) to #AcademicsWithCats. We’ll collate them and our expert panel will shortlist the best. Public voting will open on 25 November 2015.


This year there are 5 categories. Get creative!

  • Academics and their Cats: you and your feline friend
  • Writing
  • Outreach
  • Impact
  • Teaching


Best in Show
Your cat will receive a professorship certificate, mortar board, and collar tag, and will become the Mice Chancellor of Academia Obscura (@MiceChancellor). Your cat will also be entered into the Academic Cats Hall of Fame. You will receive a signed copy of the forthcoming Academia Obscura book.

Category Winners
Your cat will feature in a series of demotivational academic posters (if they so wish!). You will receive a signed copy of the forthcoming Academia Obscura book.

You will receive a free ebook version of the forthcoming Academia Obscura book.


  • Tuesday 3 November: Launch!
  • Friday 20 November: Entries close
  • 20-25 November: Shortlisting
  • 25 November: Voting opens
  • 15 December: Voting closes
  • 16-18 December: Winner announcements

The shortlisting panel

The shortlist will be diligently put together by the following panel of experts.

Chris BrookeChris Brooke
Chris is a Lecturer at Cambridge and co-winner in the first Academics with Cats Awards.

Deborah Fisher
Deborah is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Duke University and co-winner of the first Academics with Cats Awards.
Nadine MullerNadine Muller
Nadine is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature, a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker, and an academic with both cats and dogs.
Cristina RiguttoCristina Rigutto
Cristina is an avid golfer, Sci Comm expert, and tweeter. Her cat tweets @academichashcat.

Camera 360Glen Wright
Glen is the founder of Academia Obscura. A catless academic, he started #AcademicsWithCats to fill the void.

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.

“Who’s a clever boy?” Animals in academia

Animals are all over academia, from the long suffering lab rats to levitating frogs. But one wouldn’t expect our furry and feathered friends to be appearing as authors on published peer-reviewed papers. Take, for example, this fascinating paper entitled ‘Detection of earth rotation with a diamagnetically levitating gyroscope‘. All looks quite normal, until you see that the second author is H.A.M.S. ter Tisha. I.e. A hamster named Tisha. Author one, Dr. Geim, is the only academic to win both an Ig Nobel Prize and a real Nobel Prize, and author two is his pet hamster. No explanation has been advanced for this, but Dr. Geim, responsible for the aforementioned levitating frogs, is clearly quite a character.

In a similar vein, one F.D.C. Willard has published as both a co-author and, unbelievably, as sole author, on low temperature physics. F.D.C. Willard is the ‘pen name’ of Chester, the companion of Jack H. Hetherington, an American physicist and mathematician. The story goes that a colleague of Hetherington’s reviewed a paper for him and said that all was good, except for the fact he was using a lot of the ‘royal we’, a bugbear of the targeted journal. Rather than correct his grammar, Hetherington decided to add a second author instead. Concerned that his colleagues would recognise the name, a pen name was conjured: F.D. for Felis domestics, C for Chester, and Willard after the cat that sired him. The joint paper was published in Physical Review Letters in 1973.

Shortly thereafter a visitor to (the university) asked to talk to me, and since I was unavailable asked to talk with Willard. Everyone laughed and soon the cat was out of the bag. 

When the article reprints arrived, Hetherington inked Chester’s paw and sent a few signed copies to friends, and,

after most interest had died down, one to an (at the time) unknown physicist at Grenoble. He later told me that at a meeting to decide who to invite to a conference someone said “why don’t we invite Willard, he never gets invited anywhere.” He showed the reprint and everyone agreed that it seemed to be a cat paw signature. Willard never got invited and neither did I.

A copy of the paper, signed by F.D.C. Willard himself.

A copy of the paper, signed by F.D.C. Willard himself.

Some years later, Willard had learned French and was now publishing on his own, as evidenced by his paper ‘L’hélium 3 solide : un antiferromagnétisme nucléaire’ in La Recherche. In fact the real authors were bickering about how to present the ideas in the paper, such that not one of them was willing to sign the finished product. Instead they put F.D.C. Willard as the sole author, thus cementing this cats place in academia history.

Chester, aka. F.D.C. Willard

Chester, aka. F.D.C. Willard

Willard was considered for a position at the University, and in honour of his contribution to physics, APS Journals announced this year1 that all feline-authored publications would be made open access, noting that “not since Schrödinger has there been an opportunity like this for cats in physics”.

Willard is not the only cat to have unwittingly signed another’s work. Emir Filipović from the University of Sarajevo was trawling through the Dubrovnik State Archives when he stumbled upon a medieval Italian manuscript (dated 11 March 1445) marked with four very clear cat paw prints.

Proof that cats have been walking over important stuff for at least the last 500 years.

Proof that cats have been walking over important stuff for at least the last 500 years.

If you are more of a dog person, which you should be, you may be more interested in the tale of Galadriel Mirkwood, co-author of a 1978 biology paper. You may notice that Galadriel Mirkwood is the name of an Elf in Lord of the Rings, but it is also the nickname of an Afghan Hound belonging to Polly Matzinger (quite a character herself).

Pam Galadriel mirkwood

Polly and Galadriel

While partly also a tool for grammatical convenience,2 it seems that Matzinger’s inclusion of a canine author isn’t completely without merit. While working on her well-known danger model of immunology she suddenly realised that dendritic cells behave in the same way as a sheepdog. When being considered for tenure, the canine co-author question arose. Fortunately, Matzinger’s superiors, could take a joke:3

They decided it wasn’t really fraud. It was a real dog, a frequent lab visitor, and they said it had done no less research than some other coauthors had.

Despite not including any dogs as co-authors for some time, Polly remains an avid sheepdog trainer and along with her two Border Collies, Charlie and Lily, was part of the US team at the 2005 World Sheepdog Finals.4

To finish off, I shall leave you with Rosco, the super cute PhD cat.5

Rosco the PhD cat checking out his kit.

Rosco the PhD cat checking out his kit.

  1. April 1st, of course.
  2. Anton, Ted. Bold Science: Seven Scientists Who Are Changing Our World (W.H. Freeman, New York 2000).
  3. ‘Scientific Sins’, The Scientist (May 5, 2003)
  4. As described in the documentary Death by Design: Where Parallel Worlds Meet (1997)
  5. My favourite comment on that post: “seriously? you’re getting a PhD in engineering and you have time to take pictures of your cat?”.