Can you give me examples of humour in scientific papers?
December 9, 2010 8:14 AM   Subscribe

Can you help me find scientific papers that are basically jokes, or that contain jokes/humour somehow?

I came across the published paper, "Unsuccessful self-treatment treatment of writers block" a few days ago. I am also aware that the Nobel prizewinner Andrew Geim coauthored a paper with his pet hamster.

In addition, I have heard rumours of papers with amusing acknowledgments that thank brewing companies, coffee shops etc..

What other examples of humour in published scientific papers can you give me?
Please include links if you can - I have access to most academic journals via my institution.
posted by jonesor to Science & Nature (63 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
Check out this thread from last month: Your Favorite Whimsical Research Paper
posted by mskyle at 8:17 AM on December 9, 2010

I experience major affective disorder (pleasant type) just by reading about it.
posted by flabdablet at 8:19 AM on December 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's not a joke per se, but Sokal's Hoax good for more than a few lulz.
posted by mhoye at 8:25 AM on December 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's not a real paper per se, but Doug Zongker's Chicken chicken chicken (pdf) gets me every time.

Somewhat more pertinent: Penguin decays.
In the spring of 1977, Mike Chanowitz, Mary K. and I wrote a paper on GUTs [Grand Unified Theories] predicting the b quark mass before it was found. When it was found a few weeks later, Mary K., Dimitri, Serge Rudaz and I immediately started working on its phenomenology.

That summer, there was a student at CERN, Melissa Franklin, who is now an experimentalist at Harvard. One evening, she, I, and Serge went to a pub, and she 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.

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.... Later...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." "
posted by zamboni at 8:34 AM on December 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Although they're not scientific papers as such, you might enjoy the "April Fools" RFCs of the IETF, featuring a similar mix of completely straight format and presentation combined with humorous content. The most famous of these are RFC1149, A Standard for the Transmission of IP Datagrams on Avian Carriers, and RFC3514, The Security Flag in the IPv4 Header (aka the Evil Bit).
posted by Electric Dragon at 8:45 AM on December 9, 2010

This article describes a famous poster in which the authors performed brain scans on an atlantic salmon, and showed that it was capable of discerning human emotions. Best line from the poster: "the subject was not alive at the time of the experiments." The work is actually making a serious point about how easy it is to get false positives in this type of experiment.
posted by wyzewoman at 8:51 AM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Not sure if this is a real paper or not, but the Buttered Cat Paradox explains what happens when you strap a piece of jelly toast - which will always land jelly side down - to a cat - which will always land on its feet
posted by Mchelly at 8:51 AM on December 9, 2010

Economist Paul Krugman wrote The Theory of Interstellar Trade.

This is a much smaller joke, but APS journals allow the inclusion of original Asian names in author lists, and people who know Chinese might find this author list funny.
posted by bread-eater at 8:54 AM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

oops, buttered toast.
posted by Mchelly at 8:59 AM on December 9, 2010

I don't know the name of this paper or if it is a myth, but I've heard about it from a few unrelated sources. Apparently a bunch of sciencey folks went to a sociology (or similar) conference, and jotted down every word that they didn't quite understand. They then created a program that would use all these words, along with prefixes etc, to randomly create an entire paper. Apparently one of these papers was published before it came to light that it was not actually an innovative take on post-modernism, but actually just a random bunch of post-modern jargon strung together. If anyone knows more about this paper I would love to read it!
posted by whalebreath at 9:08 AM on December 9, 2010

whalebreath: That sounds like a conflation of Sokal and SCIgen (or something similar).
posted by zamboni at 9:15 AM on December 9, 2010

Check out the Journal of Irreproducible Results.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:20 AM on December 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Upper, D. The unsuccessful self-treatment of a case of "writer's block." J Appl Behav Anal. 1974 Fall; 7(3): 497.
posted by Nomyte at 9:21 AM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Not actually a scientific research journal, the venerable Journal of Irreproducible Results publishes tongue-in-cheek humor in the erudite academic style. Some of their favorite articles are available online, but mostly it's by subscription only.

There's a fair bit of covert humor in the acknowledgement of real research articles. A friend who changed her name legally during graduate school thanked her former identity for "extensive technical support", and I've heard stories about people who thanked pets with human-sounding names for moral support. But you have to know the people involved to realize the joke.
posted by Quietgal at 9:24 AM on December 9, 2010

After a weeks of reading Anderson & May / Nicholson & Bailey papers, my group really enjoyed this [PDF].
posted by special-k at 9:27 AM on December 9, 2010

Great favorite of mine (I found it when I was writing a grant for a child neurodevelopmental program):

Pathology in the Hundred Acre Wood
posted by dlugoczaj at 9:29 AM on December 9, 2010

This is an April Fool's paper from the astronomy community: Galaxy Zoo: an unusual new class of galaxy cluster.

(Galaxy Zoo, the website mentioned in the paper, is a real tool that astronomers use. The galaxies purportedly discovered in this paper, obviously, are fake.)
posted by MsMolly at 9:30 AM on December 9, 2010

Ha, one of my alumni lists just sent this out the other day: "Two Princeton math PhDs in the mid-'70s, David A. Cox (PhD 1975) and Steven Zucker (PhD 1974). Cox is an algebraic geometer, and apparently, once he found out there was a fellow mathematician at Princeton called Zucker, he decided that he must write a paper with him. Supposedly, Cox did most of the work, but he just wanted Zucker's name also associated with the result so that people could cite The Cox-Zucker Theorem. It has been referred to as both the Cox-Zucker Theorem and the Cox-Zucker Machine (because it is an algorithm). The paper has been cited by no fewer than 75 other papers."
posted by ilana at 9:33 AM on December 9, 2010 [6 favorites]

Percept Mot Skills. 2007 Dec;105(3 Pt 2):1294-8.

Bust size and hitchhiking: a field study.

Guéguen N.

To test the effect of a woman's bust size on the rate of help offered, 1200 male and female French motorists were tested in a hitchhiking situation. A 20-yr.-old female confederate wore a bra which permitted variation in the size of cup to vary her breast size. She stood by the side of a road frequented by hitchhikers and held out her thumb to catch a ride. Increasing the bra-size of the female-hitchhiker was significantly associated with an increase in number of male drivers, but not female drivers, who stopped to offer a ride.

posted by special-k at 9:50 AM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sounds like you would enjoy the Ig Nobel prize entries. They're published by the same people who publish the Annals of Improbable Research.

"Our goal is to make people laugh, then make them think. We also hope to spur people's curiosity..."

They showcase serious research that happens to make people laugh. Most of the papers themselves are not intended to be humorous works, but often the question, the experiment, or the conclusions are funny. My graduate advisor won a 2005 prize for his fluid dynamics experiment on whether humans could swim faster or slower in syrup. (Water thickened to approximately twice its normal density with commercial food thickeners had no appreciable effect on a person's swimming speed, regardless of the person's initial speed or swimming experience.)

Sadly, I joined the group just after they finished the experiment and didn't have the opportunity to take part. :-)
posted by jdwhite at 9:55 AM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Herztberg and Paris, prominent workers in the area of fracture mechanics and material fatigue, wrote "A laboratory analysis of a lavatory failure" to describe how a toilet seat broke under one of their bottoms. They start with "Think of it: the details of a metal failure on one's mind and the pieces of a broken polymer literally under one's behind!" and go through a straightforward analysis of crack heh propagation in high-impact polystyrene, concluding with "Whether sub-critical flaw growth was enhanced by the prevailing aqueous and gaseous environments remains a topic for future study." Just last week I discussed it with my students in an undergraduate Mechanics of Materials class.
posted by Mapes at 9:59 AM on December 9, 2010

OMG, Jonesor, I hope you have read this paper. The figure 1 from that paper is also a t-shirt.

Pressures Produced When Penguins Pooh -- Calculations on Avian Defaecation", J. Polar Biology
posted by special-k at 10:01 AM on December 9, 2010

Horace Minor's Body Ritual Among the Nacirema was published in the discipline's flagship journal The American Anthropologist. Of course, the validity of this suggestion hinges on whether you consider anthropology to be a science.
posted by SomeTrickPony at 10:06 AM on December 9, 2010

Here is a good one: "One more reference on self-reference" by K. Døsen
posted by bitslayer at 10:26 AM on December 9, 2010

Can't recall if it was a scientific paper or just a spoof of a scientific paper, but Language of the Earth had a writeup on the "shelving index" of books. It's been a very long time, but as I recall it, it had to do with the lining of academic offices with prestigious-looking texts as described by a shelf/space/prestige calculation.
posted by Ys at 10:32 AM on December 9, 2010

God Exists! RK Meyer, 1987, available fulltext on JSTOR.
posted by yeolcoatl at 10:35 AM on December 9, 2010

I regularly come across scientific articles with ridiculous puns in the title. For example:

- The SOCS box: a tale of destruction and degradation (Kile et al, 2002)
- Carbon monoxide: to boldly go where NO has gone before (Ryter et al, 2004)
- It takes nerve to tell T and B cells what to do (Kin & Sanders, 2002)
posted by dephlogisticated at 11:37 AM on December 9, 2010

There's the Alpher, Bethe, Gamow paper. The paper is serious but the author list included Bethe as a pun.
posted by mhum at 11:55 AM on December 9, 2010

The CMAJ has helpfully collected all their humorous articles in one place.
posted by penguinicity at 12:20 PM on December 9, 2010

No citation, but I read one once about a fellow who kept finding dishes and silverware in the TV room, which was in the basement below the kitchen, and concluded that it was a quantum tunneling effect, since the size of the objects was of the same order of magnitude as the thickness of the floor. He also noted that the presence of teenagers seemed to accentuate the effect.
posted by Bruce H. at 12:21 PM on December 9, 2010

The Etiology and Treatment of Childhood
posted by 8dot3 at 12:29 PM on December 9, 2010

Recently, widely commented on, and mostly missing the point were the news reports on the wire service last year about the dead salmon in the fMRI scanner.

Unlike what the media implied, they weren't trying to prove that the Salmon was alive and thinking, they were just using the dead object as a test to calibrate settings.

But the way it was interpreted was pretty funny.
posted by ovvl at 12:48 PM on December 9, 2010

Not so much funny papers, but papers getting gently made-fun-of: Discoblog
posted by lakeroon at 12:50 PM on December 9, 2010

There are a whole bunch in a previous thread on the Blue.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 12:55 PM on December 9, 2010

As with the Parachute article, the BMJ's christmas issue is regularly fairly silly. There's one (methodologically, very good) paper on the attrition rate of teaspoons in the office tea room from this series.
posted by singingfish at 1:13 PM on December 9, 2010

When I left my last lab, my office wrote an ENTIRE 5 page manuscript for me and had it framed in full PNAS format entitled "Departure of [Sophie] induces high autonomic nervous system activity ETOH intake increase in [lab].

The abstract is as follows:
Neurotransmitters can accelerate stress replication in vitro leading us to examine whether autonomic nervous system (ANS) activity might promote residual stress replication in coworkers with low levels of exposure to [sophie]. Co-workers who showed constitutively high levels of ANS activity before highly active [lastname] therapy (HALT) experienced poorer suppression of workload and poorer humor recovery over 3-11 months of therapy. ANS activity was not related to demographic or behavioral characteristics that might influence pathogenesis. However, the ANS neurotransmitter norepinepherine enhanced replication of both CCR5 and CXCR4-tropic strains of ETOH consumption in vitro via chemokine receptor up-regulation and enhanced viral gene expression, as well as just drinking straight out of the bottle, suggesting that [lastname] withdrawal may directly promote residual workload replication.

Best going away gift EVER.
posted by Sophie1 at 2:40 PM on December 9, 2010 [4 favorites]

"Uncleftish Beholding," by Poul Anderson.
posted by Iridic at 2:55 PM on December 9, 2010

"Lacking any guidance from previous researchers, we set out to answer the age old question 'Where have all the bloody teaspoons gone?'" On preview, I think this is the same one singingfish mentioned.

I also recall a paper my dad forwarded to me (when he was studying personality traits as part of his EDD) that was a supposedly "newly discovered" Type F[eline], (indicated by positive responses like "I enjoy playing with string", "I frequently stare at a single location for hours at a time", "I find torturing small animals relaxing", "I enjoy bathing several times an hour", etc.) but I can't seem to find it.
posted by kagredon at 3:46 PM on December 9, 2010

This is not exactly what you're after, but NCBI ROFL combs pubmed for unintentionally ridiculous research.
posted by juliapangolin at 3:57 PM on December 9, 2010

strong bad wrote one that one time.
posted by timory at 5:00 PM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Functional Programming with Bananas, Lenses, Envelopes and Barbed Wire (1991) by Erik Meijer, Maarten Fokkinga, Ross Paterson
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 6:06 PM on December 9, 2010

Legal, not scientific:

Back in 1982, there was an article by Harvard Law Professor Duncan Kennedy published in the U. Penn Law Review titled, "The Stages of Decline of the Public/Private Distinction". I can't remember the jist of it, but I believe it was very philosophical and abstract enough to inspire some controversy.

In response, Prof. Duncan's colleague at Harvard, Prof. David Shapiro, published an article in the Stanford Law Review, entitled "The Death of the Up-Down Distinction", which neatly parodied Prof. Duncan's thesis by proposing that there was no longer a distinction between Up and Down (for example, the direction Americans call "down" is what Australians would see as "up", and vice-versa).
posted by holterbarbour at 6:13 PM on December 9, 2010

Although the research is legit, the title is biologist humor gold: Sex with knockout models.
posted by oceanmorning at 9:21 PM on December 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

A great piece of folklore from the math world: Division by three.

First sentence: "In this paper we show that it is possible to divide by three."

Beyond just the title, the whole paper is -- how you say -- "jocular" in tone, but it's mathematically non-trivial, and the research was carried out by real (famous!) mathematicians.
posted by jweed at 9:56 PM on December 9, 2010

Isaac Asimov wrote a series of spoof papers about "Thiotimoline". Which dissolves before being exposed to the solvent.
posted by Four Flavors at 10:37 AM on December 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

My favorite item from the Annals of Improbable Research: Kansas Is Flatter Than a Pancake. "In this report, we apply basic scientific techniques to answer the question 'Is Kansas as flat as a pancake?'"
posted by kristi at 10:48 AM on December 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Apples and Oranges -- A Comparison

"Not only was this comparison easy to make, but it is apparent from the figure that apples and oranges are very similar. Thus, it would appear that the comparing apples and oranges defense should no longer be considered valid. "
posted by cheerleaders_to_your_funeral at 7:47 AM on December 11, 2010

An In the Pipeline comment links to a paper in iambic pentameter.

Comparative mobility of halogens in reactions of dihalobenzenes with potassium amide in ammonia J. Org. Chem
posted by bleary at 2:55 PM on December 11, 2010

A novel method for the removal of ear cerumen, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), in which the authors describe "the off-label use of a recreational device (the Super Soaker Max-D 5000) in the alleviation of a socially emergent ear condition."

The footnotes are gold:

Disclaimer: Despite what bush-mad physicians may get up to on their private islands, CMAJ by no means endorses this particular application of the Super Soaker Max-Whatever. Do not try this at home.

Acknowledgements: The authors would like to particularly thank Mr. Charlie Bannister, age 4, for his gracious loan of his Super Soaker Max-D 5000 for this pressing clinical and social need.

Competing interests: None of the authors holds stock in the Super Soaker Max-D 5000, water pistols or any devices of that kind.

posted by kisch mokusch at 3:22 AM on December 12, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you for all of these, I will take great pleasure in reading some of them I'm sure.
Anyone got any more?
posted by jonesor at 4:52 PM on December 12, 2010

In my search for a serious article, I just came across this:

Applications of High-Frequency Gravitational Waves to the Global War on Terror
Robert M L Baker, Jr.
AIP Conf. Proc. -- January 28, 2010 -- Volume 1208, pp. 501-512

posted by springload at 10:19 AM on December 15, 2010

The fuck? I thought this was legitimate at first, but then it says:

"This is the jerk formulation of the quadrupole equation. For a continuous train of jerks the frequency is [...]"

and later

"The FBAR jerks tangential to the stationary rim are exactly analogous to jerks occurring in a solid asymmetrical toroid [...]"

Well, I'm not really into gravitational waves, but it's written by the same guy as the terror war paper, so I think we have an obscure circle-jerk hoax here. Did they invent his whole field just for lulz? I'm trying to get some real science done here dammit.
posted by springload at 11:35 AM on December 15, 2010

Jerk is the scientific term for the third derivative of position with respect to time (jerk : acceleration :: acceleration : velocity.) I haven't read the paper, but that definition seems to work in the individual sentences.

It can lead to some funny-sounding sentences, though.
posted by kagredon at 11:51 AM on December 15, 2010

Jerk is the scientific term for the third derivative of position

Ah, I didn't realize that. Still, "analogous to jerks occurring in a solid asymmetrical toroid"? I'm suspicious, and the idea of the paper seems crazy in itself.
posted by springload at 1:40 PM on December 16, 2010

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