Oops!

Finding typos in a paper post-publication is dismaying, if inevitable. This isn’t usually fatal and will generally go unnoticed. Even after sinking hours of labour into it there are bound to be some miner errors. 

References to ‘screwed data’ and a ‘screwed distribution’ have not stopped a 2004 paper in the International Journal of Obesity from garnering over 300 citations. Likewise, a group of Japanese researchers concluded: ‘There were no significunt differences in the IAA content of shoots or roots between mycorrhizal and non-mycorrhizal plants’. The paper has racked up 22 citations in spite of the significunt slipup.

An unintentionally honest method appears in another paper, where the authors state: ‘In this study, we have used (insert statistical method here) to compile unique DNA methylation signatures.’

A couple of cringeworthy blunders have drawn the attention of the academic community in recent years. The Gabor scandal started when an internal author note was accidentally included in the final published version of an ecology paper:

Although association preferences documented in our study theoretically could be a consequence of either mating or shoaling preferences in the different female groups investigated (should we cite the crappy Gabor paper here?), shoaling preferences are unlikely drivers of the documented patterns…

The comment was added following peer review during the revision process and unfortunately slipped through the cracks in subsequent rounds of editing. 

A similar mix-up shook the chemistry world in 2014, when an internal note was published that apparently asked an author to fake some data:

Emma, please insert NMR data here! where are they? and for this compound, just make up an elemental analysis…

Elemental analyses are readily fabricated and are easy to slip into a paper if the journal does not ask for a copy of the independent laboratory report (in this case, however, the journal ultimately found no evidence of falsified analyses).

Rest assured that it is not only researchers who make mistakes. The London School of Economics once sent an email to around 200 students to confirm that they had accepted their place at the university, but due to an administrative error the email was addressed to Kung Fu Panda. This error caused some concern in a school where 25% of students are Asian, but apparently the choice of name merely reflected one staff member’s fondness for the film.

Other names in the test database included Piglet, Paddington, Homer, Bob and Tinkerbell.

 

Sample Cover Letter for Journal Manuscript Resubmissions

By Roy F. Baumeister

Dear Sir, Madame, or Other:
Enclosed is our latest version of Ms # 85-02-22-RRRRR, that is, the re-re-re-revised revision of our paper. Choke on it. We have again rewritten the entire manuscript from start to finish. We even changed the goddamn running head! Hopefully we have suffered enough by now to satisfy even you and your bloodthirsty reviewers.

I shall skip the usual point-by-point description of every single change we made in response to the critiques. After all, it is fairly clear that your reviewers are less interested in details of scientific procedure than in working out their personality problems and sexual frustrations by seeking some kind of demented glee in the sadistic and arbitrary exercise of tyrannical power over helpless authors like ourselves who happen to fall into their clutches. We do understand that, in view of the misanthropic psychopaths you have on your editorial board, you need to keep sending them papers, for if they weren’t reviewing manuscripts they’d probably be out mugging old ladies or clubbing baby seals to death. Still, from this batch of reviewers, C was clearly the most hostile, and we request that you not ask him or her to review this revision. Indeed, we have mailed letter bombs to four or five people we suspected of being reviewer C, so if you send the manuscript back to them the review process could be unduly delayed.

Some of the reviewers’ comments we couldn’t do anything about. For example, if (as review C suggested) several of my recent ancestors were indeed drawn from other species, it is too late to change that. Other suggestions were implemented, however, and the paper has improved and benefited. Thus, you suggested that we shorten the manuscript by 5 pages, and we were able to accomplish this very effectively by altering the margins and printing the paper in a different font with a smaller typeface. We agree with you that the paper is much better this way.

One perplexing problem was dealing with suggestions #13-28 by Reviewer B. As you may recall (that is, if you even bother reading the reviews before doing your decision letter), that reviewer listed 16 works that he/she felt we should cite in this paper. These were on a variety of different topics, none of which had any relevance to our work that we could see. Indeed, one was an essay on the Spanish-American War from a high school literary magazine. The only common thread was that all 16 were by the same author, presumably someone whom Reviewer B greatly admires and feels should be more widely cited. To handle this, we have modified the Introduction and added, after the review of relevant literature, a subsection entitled “Review of Irrelevant Literature” that discusses these articles and also duly addresses some of the more asinine suggestions in the other reviews.

We hope that you will be pleased with this revision and will finally recognize how urgently deserving of publication this work is. If not, then you are an unscrupulous, depraved monster with no shred of human decency. You ought to be in a cage. May whatever heritage you come from be the butt of the next round of ethnic jokes. If you do accept it, however, we wish to thank you for your patience and wisdom throughout this process and to express our appreciation of your scholarly insights. To repay you, we would be happy to review some manuscripts for you; please send us the next manuscript that any of these reviewers submits to your journal.

Assuming you accept this paper, we would also like to add a footnote acknowledging your help with this manuscript and to point out that we liked the paper much better the way we originally wrote it but you held the editorial shotgun to our heads and forced us to chop, reshuffle, restate, hedge, expand, shorten, and in general convert a meaty paper into stir-fried vegetables. We couldn’t, or wouldn’t, have done it without your input.

Sincerely,

5 Out of this World Star Wars Papers

it's a trap

1. It’s a Trap: Emperor Palpatine’s Poison Pill external-link

Abstract: “In this paper we study the financial repercussions of the destruction of two fully armed and
operational moon-sized battle stations (“Death Stars”) in a 4-year period and the dissolution of
the galactic government in Star Wars.” 

Highlights: The whole thing is excellent. Estimating a “$193 QUINTILLION cost for the Death Star (including R&D)”. Concluding that “the Rebel Alliance would need to prepare a bailout of at least 15%, and likely at least 20%, of GGP1 in order to mitigate the systemic risks and the sudden and catastrophic economic collapse”.

galactic bailout

Distribution of the losses caused by the destruction of the second Death Star.

2. Using Star Wars’ supporting characters to teach about psychopathology external-link

Abstract: “The pop culture phenomenon of Star Wars has been underutilised as a vehicle to teach about psychiatry… The purpose of this article is to illustrate psychopathology and psychiatric themes demonstrated by supporting characters, and ways they can be used to teach concepts in a hypothetical yet memorable way… Characters can be used to approach teaching about ADHD, anxiety, kleptomania and paedophilia.”

Highlights: Stating that Jar Jar Binks is the “low-hanging fruit of psychopathology, serving as an easily identifiable example of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)”. Overanalysis of Luke’s familial relations.

star wars table

3. Evolving Ideals of Male Body Image as Seen Through Action Toys external-link

Abstract: “We hypothesized that the physiques of male action toys…  would provide some index of evolving American cultural ideals of male body image… We obtained examples of the most popular American action toys manufactured over the last 30 years. We then measured the waist, chest, and bicep circumference of each figure and scaled these measurements using classical allometry to the height of an actual man (1.78 m)… We found that the figures have grown much more muscular over time…”

Highlights: The accompanying image showing how buff Luke and Anakin became between 1978-1998. “Luke and Hans have both acquired the physiques of bodybuilders over the last 20 years, with particularly impressive gains in the shoulder and chest areas”

Luke & Hans

4. Darth Vader Made Me Do It! Anakin Skywalker’s Avoidance of Responsibility and the Gray Areas of Hegemonic Masculinity in the Star Wars Universe external-link

Abstract: “In this essay, we examined the interactions of Anakin Skywalker during moral dilemmas in the Star Wars narrative in order to demonstrate the avoidance of responsibility as a characteristic of hegemonic masculinity. Past research on sexual harassment has demonstrated a ‘‘gray area’’ that shields sexual harassers from responsibility. We explored how such a gray area functions as a characteristic of hegemonic masculinity by shielding one male, Anakin Skywalker, from responsibility for his immoral and often violent actions. Through our investigation, we found three themes integral for the construction of a gray area that helped Anakin avoid responsibility: phantom altruism, a clone-like will, and the guise of the Sith.”

Highlights: “Other characters within contemporary popular culture—such as Rambo and Jason Bourne—all avoid responsibility for any crimes or violent actions they take when confronted by moral dilemmas within their respective narrative because they all demonstrate themes similar to the three that arose in our analysis of Anakin Skywalker: (a) an altruistic past, (b) threats and deceptions that rob them of their autonomy, and (c) a dark guise that can be blamed for their most egregious actions”

5. The Skywalker Twins Drift Apart external-link

Abstract: “The twin paradox states that twins travelling relativistically appear to age differently to one
another due to time dilation. In the 1980 film Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, twins
Luke and Leia Skywalker travel very large distances at “lightspeed.” This paper uses two scenarios to
attempt to explore the theoretical effects of the twin paradox on the two protagonists.”

HighlightsCapture d’écran 2015-12-18 à 14.46.34 Luke is calculated to be 638.2 days younger than Leia.

  1. Gross Galactic Product

12 Things I Learned About Academia from Google Suggestions

1. University is free in Germany, but elsewhere it’s just business. It is also like riding a bike.

uni is

2. Academia is a pointless, broken cult.

academia is

3. There are many misconceptions about us academics. We are often happy, but not always. We are rarely important, and never well paid!

are academics

4. We are many things:

5. We are not the problem…

academics aren't

6. …but we aren’t everything either.

academics are not

7. Economics students are promiscuous and selfish.

economics students

8. History students are just promiscuous.

history students are

9. As for law students, well…

law students

10. A PhD can be problematic, unless it is in dance.

my phd is

11. Don’t expect to much help from your professor…

my professor doesn't

12. …nor from the hot-but-lazy TA.

my teaching assistant is

Many questions remain.

do academics

 

What does Google suggestions say where you are? Tweet your screenshots to @AcademiaObscura with the hashtag #GoogleAcademia.

Why does it always rain on me? Academics forecast their day

People have, on occasion, asked how a particular hashtag came about. I have often wondered the same of others’ hashtag creations (#PhDAsExistentialCrucible anyone?) but usually struggle to remember what the thinking was behind my own. The latest, #AcademicForecast, is easily explained.

I started out today by trying to tackle some ‘minor revisions’ on a paper. About an hour into this process, I started to ponder, as I’m sure many of you have, why supposedly minor revisions take so long? Admittedly some of the reviewer’s comments were indeed minor and swiftly dealt with (I had failed to capitalize the word ‘Tuna’, perish the thought). Others, seemingly innocuous, are probably going to take a few hours to tick off the list.

I didn’t much fancy doing the big changes at that moment so I headed to Twitter to procrastinate. I’ve been seeing an unusually high level of pedantry on Twitter lately, and today was no different. Slightly deflated by the fact that my options for the day seemed to be pedantry from Reviewer B (I assume it was Reviewer B, it usually is) or pedantry on twitter, I wrote the following:

I quite liked the idea of an academic day being summed up by a slightly sarcastic weather forecast, and figured that others may wish to join me:

 

As usual, the academic twittersphere did not disappoint! A hundred or so tweets came in; here are a few of my favorites:

 

Even grammar got involved:

And, as usual, a good time was had by all 🙂

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.

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.

Bored or High? #3: Panda death

One of my favourite diagrams of all time comes from a paper in Historical Biology: An International Journal of Paleobiology The title of the paper does little to warn of the horrors within:

Remains of Holocene giant pandas from Jiangdong Mountain (Yunnan, China) and their relevance to the evolution of quaternary environments in south-western China

Peek into the abstract however and you may begin to see where this is going:

Two subfossil partial skeletons of male giant pandas were recovered, along with remains of 16 other mammalian species, from a natural sinkhole on Jiangdong Mountain… The bones represent a natural accumulation of mostly large mammals (>30 kg), which had fallen accidentally into the sinkhole.

The authors illustrate this accidental falling through the medium of cartoon, providing 7 beautifully illustrated panels. I reproduce the panels separately below; the full diagram is a lot to take in all at once.

The diagram starts out by setting the scene for you. Note the depth gauge.

panda1

Panel 1 depicts this lovely Panda having the time of its life in some yummy, dense bamboo. But oh no! Look out Mr. Panda!

panda2

Panels 2 and 3 show our poor Panda falling to its untimely death. I can’t help but wonder, what was it thinking as it fell?

panda3

In panel 4, nature takes its gruesome course…

panda4panda5

…and in panels 5 & 6 our cute, cuddly, and very much dead panda reaches its final resting place.

panda6

Let’s just let that sink in for a moment…

 
2baecd6d53d2e269c1f8dddd859eae8f

 

Penguins

Penguins are adorable. On this we can all agree. Perhaps it is through their sheer cuteness that they have managed to waddle their way into some rather obscure corners of academia. Here we give you our favourite Penguin papers and other tidbits. Please do let us know if you find Penguins turning up elsewhere.

A 'Penguin' diagram, before the infusion of darts, beer, and drugs.

A ‘Penguin’ diagram, before the infusion of darts, beer, and drugs.

1. Particle Physics Penguins
Perhaps the most famous use of the Penguins likeness comes from particle physics, where it is used to represent “[something very complicated in high energy physics that I don’t understand at all]”.

What is perhaps less well-known is how these diagrams came about. Originally, the Penguin diagrams looked nothing like Penguins. That all changed when John Ellis, now Professor of Theoretical Physics at King’s College London, went for a drink with Melissa Franklin and Serge Rudaz. As he recalls:1

In case you were struggling to see the resemblance...

In case you were struggling to see the resemblance…

Melissa and I started a game of darts. We made a bet that if I lost I had to put the word penguin into my next paper. She actually left the darts game before the end, and was replaced by Serge, who beat me. Nevertheless, I felt obligated to carry out the conditions of the bet.

It is worth noting that this loss was in itself rather improbable. Rudaz later admitted that for him to beat Ellis at a game of darts was a “miraculous event”: “John was a very strong player and had his own set of darts which he brought to the pub”.2 Nonetheless, Ellis now had to find some way to work Penguins into his next paper, no easy task.

For some time, it was not clear to me how to get the word into this b quark paper that we were writing at the time. Then, one evening, after working at CERN, I stopped on my way back to my apartment to visit some friends living in Meyrin where I smoked some illegal substance. Later, when I got back to my apartment and continued working on our paper, I had a sudden flash that the famous diagrams look like penguins. So we put the name into our paper, and the rest, as they say, is history.

penguin_chalk

John Ellis drawing up one of his famous physics Penguins.

Of course, the scientists were not happy with just one type of Penguin, so a new Super Penguin was subsequently spawned.3

This is just, brilliant.

This is just, brilliant.

2. Chemistry Penguins
Not to be outdone by the physicists, the chemists decided to get in on the joke. Said chemists decided that 3,4,4,5-tetramethylcyclohexa-2,5-dien-1-one was rather a dull name for a chemical. Noting that its skeletal formula looked quite like a Penguin, they decided to give it the common name Penguinone.4

1. Penguin. 2. Penguinone.

1. Penguin. 2. Penguinone.

penguin33. Penguin Poo
You may or may not be aware that Penguins, in particular Chinstrap and Adelie Penguins, defecate rather forcefully. This fact evidently proved worthy of further study to Dr. Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow and Jozsef Gal, who published a dedicated paper in Polar Biology: ‘Pressures produced when penguins pooh—calculations on avian defaecation‘. Dr. Meyer-Rochow describes how this unusual paper came to be:5

Our project started in Antarctica during the first (and only) Jamaican Antarctic Expedition in 1993… Many photographs of penguins and their “decorated” nests were taken. Later at a slide show… I was asked by a student during question time to explain how the penguins decorated their nests. I answered: They get up, move to the edge of the nest, turn around, bend over- and shoot… she blushed, the audience chuckled, and we got the idea to calculate the pressures produces when penguins poo.

penguin_poop

A helpful diagram.

As with many of the more unusual papers that we have found lurking in the backwaters of academia, Penguin Poo elicited a number of genuine scientific research questions.6 A palaeontologist studying dinosaur biology thought that the calculations could be applied to similar streaks found near fossil dinosaur nests, zoo-operators inquired about ‘safe’ distances for visitors, and a medical researcher was inspired to recalculate the same measures for humans, as that data was now quite old!7

Penguin poo, as it turns out, can serve another useful purpose: locating Penguin colonies from space. In a paper entitled ‘Penguins from space: faecal stains reveal the location of emperor penguin colonies‘, researchers used satellite imagery to spot distinctive brown stains on the ice, left by Emperor Penguin colonies. Using this technique, they were able to locate 10 new colony locations, reposition six known locations by over 10 km, and rule out 6 old locations.

If you are not already tired of Penguins, there is of course a huge body of research concerning these beautiful birds that can keep you amused for hours. Recent finds include decoding of a ‘language’ used by Jackass Penguins and discovery of fossils of a giant, 2m tall, Penguin. Or you can just leave it here, happy in the knowledge that Norway once knighted a Penguin :-).

Nils Olav receiving his knighthood.

Nils Olav receiving his knighthood.

  1. Ellis passed on his recollections to Mikhail Shifman, who subsequently reproduced them in the foreword to his book, ITEP Lectures in Particle Physicshttp://arxiv.org/pdf/hep-ph/9510397v1.pdf
  2. Vainshtein, A., ‘How Penguins Started to Fly’ (Sakurai Prize Lecture, 1999) http://arxiv.org/pdf/hep-ph/9906263.pdf.
  3. Dujmic, D., ‘BaBar Searches for Super-Penguins’ (September 14, 2006) SLAC Today http://today.slac.stanford.edu/a/2006/09-14.htm.
  4. The lovely people over at i can has science did a bit of digging and found that Penguinone is mentioned in the literature around 10 times, but that searches of a chemistry database produced no results. It is therefore not clear whether a chemist actually named this molecule, or whether the internet has worked its magic and nobody has the heart to dispel the myth.
  5. Personal website: http://www.meyer-rochow.com/penguinpoo.htm
  6. Personal website: http://www.meyer-rochow.com/penguinqa.htm
  7. It is not immediately clear exactly what the practical application of such measurements is.