Our colleague Vito Tartamella has just completed the most comprehensive collection of the jokes that have written (and at times changed) the history of science, from Franklin to Tesla, from the Cern labs to Science magazine. The result of his research is the book “Marconi’s chicken and other 110 scientific jokes” (Dedalo edizioni). We asked him to explain how the idea for this volume came about and to give us a preview of five of the funniest jokes he’s collected.
The idea for this essay came to me in 2014 when I discovered a sensational joke that has lasted 27 years: a study published in the journal Journal of Statistical Physics, which had among the signatories a certain Stronzo Bestiale of the Institute for Advanced Studies of Palermo. How was that possible?
When I revealed the background to this research, the magazine’s website also mentioned it Science. And several scientists from around the world have written to me to report other jokes. It was an aspect I didn’t know existed, so I decided to investigate. That the Bestial case was by no means an isolated case: research institutes such as NASA, CERN, FermiLab, caliber journals Science and NatureMuseums and laboratories around the world had been dreaming up sensational jokes for the last 150 years (not just on the occasion of April 1st).
Among the pranksters are also 5 Nobel Prize winners (Guglielmo Marconi, Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe, Richard Feynman and Andrei Geim) and other celebrities such as Benjamin Franklin, Nikola Tesla, Richard Branson, Enrico Bombieri, Thomas Edison, Isaac Asimov (when he received his PhD in chemistry at university).
But what makes scientists crack jokes or spread hoaxes, jeopardizing their most valuable legacy, credibility? Pranks have been in the DNA of scientists since the Middle Ages: on the occasion of the main holidays, the monks wrote parodic versions of the treatises, an intellectual delight. And in the newly born universities the Goliards, itinerant intellectuals, were known for their jokes.
Today, a third reason is added to these, namely the mockery of widespread prejudices or the exposure of dubious scientific journals. Like the physicist Alan Sokal in 1996 with “Social Text”, the journal of postmodernism, a school of thought that criticizes every discipline as the daughter of economic and political powers. Sokal sent her a completely nonsensical article that portrayed gravity as “capitalist fiction.”
However, the magazine published it: it was proof, Sokal commented, that this magazine did not even carefully read what it published, blinded by the big words of a smoky jargon (as we had said in this article). This prank has then become a method, a trick test, used by several scientists to expose bootleg magazines, i.e. those that publish anything as long as it is paid for.
But what are the scientific jokes that have made history? I have selected 5 for Focus.it readers.
Remember the Higgs boson, the elusive subatomic particle? Theorized in 1964 by British physicist Peter Higgs, its traces were not discovered until 2012 at CERN in Geneva, which made the announcement at a conference attended live by physicists from around the world. And in 2013, Higgs received the Nobel Prize in Physics.
Peter Higgs at CERN in front of one of the detectors that made it possible to prove experimentally the existence of the particle he predicted in the 1960s.
Well, the Higgs particle, five years later CERN announced that it had discovered another particle: that of … Eggs (“eggs” in English), so named because “predicted by Peter Eggs more than 40 years ago “. If the Higgs boson gives other elementary particles mass, the Eggs boson gives them the “flavor”: In physics, the “flavor” is a value that describes some properties of the particles (energy, orbital shape, magnetism, spin).
“If it weren’t for the Eggs particle, all food would taste the same now,” CERN wrote. “By examining the production and decay properties of this new particle, the physicists confirmed that it consists of two eggs that carry the sticky ‘strong force’ (the one that holds the protons with the neutrons in the nucleus of an atom). The road to the grand union between subatomic physics and molecular gastronomy is now wide open ».
It’s extraordinary that the world’s largest particle physics laboratory knows how to look at itself with a self-deprecating gaze.
“The population density of monsters in Loch Ness”: not an article from a hoax site, but the title of a research paper published in the journal Limnology and Oceanography by R. Sheldon and S. Kerr of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography Dartmouth.
The two scholars intend to scientifically estimate the number of monsters that might exist on Loch Ness because “very few quantitative observations have been made. We don’t know anything about their distribution ». And so they calculated how many creatures the lake could support: “An oligotrophic lake as deep as Loch Ness should produce an annual yield of between 0.55 and 2.75 kg per hectare and year. Since the Loch Ness area is approximately 5,700 hectares, the total mass of the monsters in the loch ranges from 3,135 to 15,675 kg. The minimum average height is arbitrarily set at 100 kg; something smaller is not monstrous enough. Since monsters have been seen in the lake for hundreds of years, there must be a population capable of breeding. But since nobody has ever seen their corpses, they must be large and long-lived: therefore, according to the researchers, the lake could host a population of 20 individuals weighing 1,500 kg and 8 meters long ».
3. A strange botanical family
In 2007, the journal “Ethnobotany research and applications” published an epoch-making study: after 6 years of research, a plant family that had never been studied before was discovered. “They appear to be practically immortal, easily interbreeding not only with other species but also with other genera, despite having no genetic material whatsoever.”
The plants – 80 species, divided into 17 genera – are distributed all over the world: They are called “Simulacraceae”. You can find them, writes Nat Bletter, author of the study, “in cemeteries, gardens, parades, restaurants, museums, dentist offices, supermarkets, hotel rooms…. The habitats in which the Simulacracaee they can, except perhaps, grow in the wild, although range expansion can be directly correlated to anthropogenic impacts ».
Did you understand what it is? It’s a parody of botanical studies, in this case applied to… plastic plants.
4. The ones that put Dylan into research
It was 1997, and Jon Lundberg and Eddie Weitzberg, professors in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at the Karolinska Institute (Sweden’s largest academic medical research center), had an article in Nature Medicine entitled “Nitric Oxide and Inflammation: The Answer Blows Within.” Wind” (“Nitric Oxide and Inflammation: The answer blows in the wind”).
It was an homage to the chorus of Bob Dylan’s famous song “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1964), of which the writers are fans. The case was not an isolated one: in 2003, two other Karolinska researchers, Jonas Frisén and Konstantinos Meletis, published another Dylan-inspired study on neuronal cells: “Blood on the Tracks: A Simple Twist of Fate?” (“Blood on the tracks: a simple twist of fate?”), which quoted two minstrel hits, the album “Blood on the tracks” (1975) and the song “Simple twist of fate”.
At this point, Lundberg and Weitzberg decided to turn the idea into a challenge: whoever wrote the most articles quoting Dylan would win a dinner at the restaurant. The quartet was then joined by Kenneth Chien, a professor of cardiovascular research, and the bet is still up. On one condition: that the citation “is linked to the scientific content, reinforces the message and increases the quality of the article”.
Karolinska Institutet professors are die-hard Bob Dylan fans: from left Jonas Frisén, Konstantinos Meletis, Jon Lundberg, Kenneth Chien and Eddie Weitzberg.
© Karolinska Institutet / Gustav Martensson
But among scientists, passion for Dylan is widespread: The British Medical Journal found that at least 213 researchers have cited songs by Dylan in the biomedical literature since 1970.
In 2004, NASA sent the Messenger probe to investigate Mercury, the planet closest to the Sun. When it ran out of fuel in 2015, NASA crashed it into the planet’s surface in a controlled impact, 14,000 km schedule.
In an article on the Science magazine website, the probe recorded human voices in multiple languages and grainy images of people shortly before it was destroyed. Father Felix Flammis, spokesman for the Vatican Observatory, defined these records as “irrefutable proof of the existence of Hell”.
The discovery, Science continues, is a surprise: Until now, Venus was considered the prime candidate for Hades, with an average surface temperature of 462 °C, an oppressive atmosphere and sulfuric acid rain. Other scientists, the article adds, “do not completely reject the hypothesis and, on the contrary, believe that there may be more hells in our solar system”: in fact, according to string theory, “the theory of many hells is not only plausible, but very probable” , says Franklyn Stein, theoretical physicist at University College London. It was a sensational April Fool’s joke.