High school kids may not believe science has a sense of humor, but I know a few scientists who would beg to differ. While it's true that there's a fair share of dry conference papers in the world, truly passionate scientists can make anything fun. Here are nine funny quotes from serious scientists to brighten up your day:
1. "Well, I didn't know it was hard."
1987. Ivan Sutherland, when asked "How could you possibly have done the first interactive graphics program, the first non-procedural programming language, the first object-oriented software system, all in one year?" Sutherland is a computer scientist who invented Sketchpad, a predecessor to modern graphical user interfaces.
2. "I think I'll stop here."
1993. Andrew Wiles after finishing writing the proof to Fermat's Last Theorem. Wiles is a mathematician and professor in number theory. Despite an impressive career, he is most famous for finding the proof for the centuries-old theorem. He dedicated many years of research working in complete secrecy until he presented his proof in 1993.
3. "I have no idea. People who boast about their IQ are losers."
2004. Stephen Hawking, when asked about his IQ.
4. "I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious."
1952. Albert Einstein. A good reminder that genius and passion are two separate things, and one of them is attainable by everyone.
5. "Mathematics is the queen of the sciences and number theory is the queen of mathematics. She often condescends to render service to astronomy and other natural sciences, but in all relations she is entitled to the first rank."
1856. Carl Friedrich Gauss, the mathematician famous for the normal or Gaussian distribution that most students know as the bell curve. Shh, don't tell Phil Plait about Gauss' thoughts on astronomy! Gauss actually did work in astronomy himself, along with numerous other fields, yet apparently none other compared to number theory in his regard.
6. "I can’t go to a restaurant and order food because I keep looking at the fonts on the menu. Five minutes later I realize that it’s also talking about food."
2002. Donald Knuth, when asked about his work on computer typesetting in All Questions Answered. Knuth wrote a series of computer science books called The Art of Computer Programming, a staple in every programmer's library. His contributions to the field are focused mainly on analysis of algorithm complexity.
7. "If it disagrees with experiment, it's wrong. And that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn't make a difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn't matter how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it's wrong. That's all there is to it."
1964. Richard Feynman, about the key to science. Feynman was a theoretical physicist and brilliant lecturer. His work in quantum electrodynamics won him a Nobel prize, while his unquestionable charisma secured him a spot in the top 10 greatest physicists of all time.
8. "I reckon that they might be statistically right because you've got to be such a *bleep* to believe it that you might have a higher statistical chance of walking in front of a bus. So in that sense, they could be statistically correct. And it will be to the advantage to all of us because the human race will progress in a more measured way if these people who believed that are statistically removed in 2012."
2010. Brian Cox, when asked about his opinion of people who believe the world will end in 2012. Cox's unapologetic attitude towards 2012 apocalypse believers and astrologers earned him some internet hatred, but as far as I can tell, the feeling's entirely reciprocal. On top of being a particle physicist and university professor, he's best known for his popularity as a science communicator like Neil deGrasse Tyson.
9. "It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission."
1986. Grace Hopper. Hopper is not only a pioneer computer scientist who developed the first compiler, but one of the few women to show up in the field's history. The common myth states that Hopper coined the term "computer bug" when she found an actual moth in the hardware to be the source of a computer malfunction, but in reality the term "bug" predates Hopper. However, she did report the "first actual case of bug being found," with the dead moth taped right on the report.
How about you? Do you have a favorite light-hearted quote from a scientist?
Burns in children. Psychiatric illness. Head injuries. These are not funny subjects. But apparently almost anything can seem funny if you think about it long enough—especially if you’ve devoted years to studying the subject. When it’s time to publish their research, many scientists try to get clever with their article titles, presumably to make their work seem more fun and interesting. Fortunately (for us), the results of this creativity range from hackneyed to outright offensive.
We’ve been collecting scientific articles with bizarre titles for more than five years for our blog, Seriously, Science?. (It used to be known as NCBI ROFL, for National Center for Biotechnology Information: Rolling on the Floor Laughing. NCBI runs PubMed, a database of scientific journal articles. You can see why we changed the name.) Here we’ve compiled some of our favorites, classified into the three top categories—although some clearly belong in multiple groups.
Literary and Pop Culture Allusions
We’re not the first to notice that scientists enjoy using literary allusions in their paper titles. In fact, according to an analysis by Neville Goodman of allusions in scientific publication titles, scientists overuse some (obvious) literary allusions. Goodman found, based on an extensive search of the PubMed database, that “more than 1,400 Shakespearean allusions exist, a third of them to ‘What’s in a name’ and another third to Hamlet—mostly to ‘To be or not to be.’ ” There were also 381 allusions to Back to the Future, and many to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, where “all sorts of things have substituted for clothes, including isodose curves, bone densitometry, and the lateral ligaments of the rectum.” Unfortunately, says Goodman, “There are no ‘fat bottomed girls’ (Queen, 1978)” and “Obstetricians have so far ignored ‘Once more unto the breech.’ ”
On a related note, the annual (intentionally lighthearted) Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal was released this week, and it included an analysis by researchers in Sweden of Bob Dylan lyrics found in the biomedical literature. The study was inspired by the authors’ colleagues, who revealed in 2014 that they had been sneaking Dylan lyrics into their articles for years as part of a long-running bet. The list includes such title gems as “Like a Rolling Histone” and “Knockin’ on Pollen’s Door: Live Cell Imaging of Early Polarization Events in Germinating Arabidopsis Pollen.” Although the authors found few Dylan references prior to 1990, since then, the references have increased exponentially, with the two most cited songs being “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” (135 articles) and “Blowin’ in the Wind” (36 articles). Interestingly, the journal Nature had a particularly high number of articles (six total) that cited Dylan.
Here are a few of the more clever titles we’ve come across—some so ridiculous that we suspect the authors might have come up with the titles first and figured out the studies later.
Some titles take a joke a bit too far, especially for those of us viewing the field as an outsider. Maybe these scientists chose to use their paper’s title to lighten the mood on a heavy topic, but still … there’s dark humor, and then there’s just inappropriate.
And finally, there are the titles that seem so out there that their humor must have been unintentional ... or at least we hope so?
Does having a clever title affect how well a paper is received? One study actually looked at whether articles with “amusing titles” get cited more often. Unfortunately, “while the pleasantness rating was weakly associated with the number of citations, articles with highly amusing titles received fewer citations.” But hey, at least they get cited on our blog! Do you have a favorite article title? Please share it in the comments below or send us a tip.