Academic Easter Eggs

You’d expect the likes of Google to be hiding Easter Eggs in their pages, originating as they do in old school video games (just search ‘do a barrel roll’), but you might not think the practice would catch on in the stuffy ranks of academia. Though not exactly widespread, academics have been known to amuse themselves by discreetly burying little jokes in their journal papers.

The most obvious are the cringeworthy paper titles we’re all familiar with: plays on words, remixed film titles, awful Dad jokes. There is even a study examining whether such titles affect citation numbers. I particularly approve of the five Swedish scientists that have been sneaking Bob Dylan lyrics into paper titles for the past 15 years, having made a bet to see who can reference Bobby D the most before retirement. This is how a paper on intestinal gasses got the title, ‘Nitric oxide and inflammation: The answer is blowing in the wind’.

By far the most fertile ground for academic Easter Eggs is on the first page of journal articles, hidden in plain sight in author lists and acknowledgements. ‘Muammar “Dirty Old Man” Gaddafi’ has contributed to a paper through his “inspirational level of lived coherence”, while Italian pornstar Rocco Siffredi provides “constant support” for research on cystic fibrosis (he’s all heart). Some researchers get divine inspiration from famed cargo cult deity John Frum, while others credit the heavy metal band Slayer for their academic output.

gadaffi gaddafi 2

Sometimes certain language skills are required to decipher the jokes. Italian speakers noticing Stronzo Bestiale on a paper would likely raise an eyebrow (it means “total asshole”), while speakers of Catalan would realize that Visca el Barça is a football chant, not an author. When one journal decided to provide for transliteration of author names, they probably didn’t expect that 韦小宝 would be writing for them: he is a well-known character in Chinese stories, being a prodigal son of a prostitute and a demi-Emperor with 8 wives.

Polly Higgins and her co-author/dog

Polly Matzinger and her co-author/dog

Then there’s cats. If #AcademicsWithCats has taught us anything, it is that academics, like everyone else on the internet, have a bewildering love of cats. It is no surprise then to find that one academic cat, F.D.C. Willard, is the sole author of a paper on high temperature physics. Written in French, no less. Elsewhere in the animal kingdom, Nobel Prize winner Andre Geim co-authored a paper with his hamster, and Galadriel Mirkwood, immunobiology expert, is actually a dog.

Perhaps it should be graduate students that carry the torch in this emerging field, given that they are not (yet) concerned with tenure and the like. The sadly defunct website PhD Challenge aimed to capitalize on this by encouraging students to slip a silly phrase into a published paper. The insertion of “I smoke crackrocks” into a paper whose methodology involved receiving phone calls from all-comers in the wee small hours of the morning seems a bit like cheating, but I like the idea nonetheless. One step down from grad students and the possibilities are endless – one of my favorites is an essay, which deftly weaves the infamous lyrics of Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up into its first page (an internet phenomenon known as ‘Rickrolling’, for the uninitiated).

A plague on your house!

A plague on your house!

I personally love this small injection of humor into the dusty barrenness of academic literature, but you’d be well advised to proceed with caution. Polly Matzinger’s tenure committee saw the funny side of including a dog as an author, noting that the dog had likely contributed more than many other so-called co-authors. But naming cancer-causing genes after Sonic the Hedgehog, publicly calling out a reviewer for their “useless and very mean comments”, or wishing a plague on the house of a research body that refused to fund your research may not be such a good idea.

If you are going to slip in an Easter Egg or two, it is probably best to hide it well or make sure it is understood by only a select few (experts on Chinese literature or fans of heavy metal, for example). Happy Easter!

Seen an academic Easter Egg? Tweet me @AcademiaObscura.

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

“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) http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/14715/title/Scientific-Sins/.
  4. As described in the documentary Death by Design: Where Parallel Worlds Meet (1997) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118947/.
  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?”.