Scientists Are Punnier Than You Think

Even serious researchers get punchy when writing up their results from time to time. 

Scientists have senses of humor too!


It was formatted like any run-of-the-mill physics paper, with sections for the introduction, experiment description, and results. The subject was experimental nonlocal and surreal Bohmian trajectories—heavy reading for sure, but par for the course in Science Advances, where it was published in late February. In a nearly final draft, at the bottom of the third page, the authors had clarified: “The particles in this article are photons, as was the case in Kocsis et al.” But before the article went to press, one of the authors, Howard Wiseman of Griffith University in Australia, decided to have a bit of fun. 

So the published version of the paper read:

The particles in this article (Although “the particles in this article” is in this particular article, consider “the particles in an article” as part of an article. As any articulate party would know, the particles in “the particles in an article” are “the” and “in,” whereas the articles in “the particles in an article” are “the” and “an,” but the particular article in “the particles in an article” is “the.” “p.s.” is all that is left when you take the “article” out of “particles.”) are photons, as was the case in Kocsis et al.

It takes a fair bit of chutzpah to embed a paragraph-long linguistic witticism within an otherwise legitimate sentence in a peer-reviewed physics article. (It’s not something you’re likely to try early in your career.) Wiseman says he “had to plead a little bit for the other authors to agree,” but he won them over. One of his co-authors, Aephraim Steinberg of the University of Toronto, complimented Wiseman on his punnery; he figured it would never make it past the editors anyway. And yet, when the paper was published, there it was. “The editors either didn’t notice it or found it amusing too,” says Steinberg.

It wasn’t Wiseman’s first time engaging in peer-reviewed shenanigans. A couple of years ago, he published a paper on strategies for dealing with photon loss in optical circuits and insisted that one of the paper’s sections be divided up as follows: 


A. Dealing with loss: Denial

B. Dealing with loss: Anger

C. Dealing with loss: Depression

D. Dealing with loss: Hope

“We had to fight the proof editor to get it in, but we won,” says Wiseman. The editor’s objections were not particularly in response to the humor, Wiseman notes, but rather to the use of nonstandard terms in describing a physical system. Wiseman countered that the terms could very well describe a human experimenter working with a physical system. In the end, it was a small victory for those trying to add a little levity to the drudgery of scientific publishing.

For some scientists, sneaking inside jokes or clever wordplay past reviewers and editors is something of a hobby—perhaps even a mission that pits authorial creativity against editorial curmudgeondom. This nefarious act of adding a bit of fun to the seemingly cold and calculating world of science has a rich tradition. Back in 1948, physicists Ralph Alpher and George Gamow were getting ready to submit an important paper on the physics of the big bang to the journal Physical Review, when they decided that it would be amusing to add the name of their colleague, physicist Hans Bethe, as a co-author. Bethe wasn’t involved in the research or the writing of the paper—but they thought “Alpher–Bethe–Gamow” had a nice ring to it, echoing the first three letters of the Greek alphabet. (Indeed, the article has been known as the “alpha-beta-gamma paper” ever since.) And in the 1980s, a mysterious author named “Stronzo Bestiale” (Italian for “total asshole”) started being credited on a variety of physics and chemistry journals. Turns out, he doesn’t exist (surprise!)—he was an invention of American physicist William Hoover, who at first was seeking revenge for a rejected article and then just kept using it. A team of Swedish researchers, meanwhile, recently admitted to sneaking Bob Dylan lyrics into their paper titles for some 17 years.

Of course, trickery in academic publishing is not always of the innocent linguistic variety. There’s the famous Sokal hoax of 1996, in which a physicist submitted a fake article to a cultural studies journal, to see if their editors could distinguish gibberish from sincere postmodern scholarship; as it turned out, they could not. Other scientists parlay their humor into second careers: Physicist Helen Arney is also a professional stand-up comic; Mayim Bialik, who plays a neuroscientist on The Big Bang Theory, is also one in real life; Randall Munroe was a rocket scientist at NASA before turning to comic strip writing (including the much-loved xkcd web comic) full time. And science humor is the raison d’etre of two different faux journal magazines, the The Journal of Irreproducible Results and the Annals of Improbable Research. A favorite article from the former focuses on the perils of pickles, asserting that “99.9 percent of all people who die from cancer have eaten pickles” and that “99.7 percent of the people involved in air and auto accidents ate pickles within 14 days preceding the accident.” The author’s conclusion: “Eat orchid petal soup. Practically no one has any problems from eating orchid petal soup.” The Annals, meanwhile, oversees the annual Ig Nobel prizes, awarded for “achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.” Last year’s mathematics prize went to two researchers who used “mathematical techniques to determine whether and how Moulay Ismael the Bloodthirsty, the Sharifian Emperor of Morocco, managed, during the years from 1697 through 1727, to father 888 children.” (The researchers’ conclusion: Yes, the emperor “could have reached his notorious reproductive success with fewer copulations than assumed so far—thus the historic reports could be facts and not fancy.”)

Granted, the emperor’s tireless copulations lend themselves to a bit of humor; photons and Bohmian trajectories, less so. And alas, sometimes curmudgeondom gets the last laugh. About 10 weeks after the paper by Wiseman, Steinberg, and their colleagues appeared in Science Advances, the editors decided the punnery was beneath the journal’s dignity—and excised the offending lines from the article. (The journal doesn’t have a print edition, so only those who downloaded the article prior to late April will get to see Wiseman’s clever wordplay. Everyone else will have to read this story, I guess.) “The bad news is that, while the proof editors obviously had a sense of humor, the scientific editors were not cool with it, once they found out it was there,” says Wiseman. 

And so that particular article part has departed.