Monday, March 30, 2009

Corrosion Monitoring of Nude Mice Metaphysics

It will come as no surprise to some readers that I am rather fond of strange and possibly even humorous literary contests, such as those that reward people for deliberately writing awful prose in the style of certain famous authors. You can even buy a compilation of The Best of Bad Hemingway.

Some awards are not so nice and reward people for deliberately writing awful prose in the style of non-famous and unsuspecting persons, e.g. applicants to graduate programs. And some awards are for writing that wasn't supposed to be bad, but is. I don't know if there is an academic equivalent of the Bad Sex in Literature Contest, but the Broader Impacts section of some NSF proposals is a possibility.

There is also an award for the "Oddest Book Title of the Year", the Bookseller/Diagram prize, sponsored by The Bookseller magazine. I like the concept of this award, but I am not impressed with the typical result, which is to choose an obscure technical/science publication that sounds weird to the non-technical/non-science reading public. I suppose these are the publications that best fit the criterion that the book not have been intentionally given an odd name, but I don't like the science-is-weird implications.

The winner this year, based on internet voting, involves a technical report generated to evaluate a certain size and type of dairy container. Other candidates are similarly technical, and in my opinion there is nothing strange about them except that their intended audience is rather specialized; e.g. The Large Sieve and its Application or Techniques for Corrosion Monitoring. What is so odd about those? I find it a bit alarming that a publication on corrosion monitoring would be seen as bizarre.

Similarly Baboon Metaphysics may seem somewhat strange as a title, but the topic of consciousness in primates is not so odd.

The belief that technical-sounding things are bizarre and therefore probably irrelevant is dangerous thinking. It can lead, for example, to suspicion and disapproval about how federal funds are spent; e.g. the recent infamous incidents involving rants by politicians about bear DNA studies and volcano monitoring.

This science-is-weird trend is a tradition for this particular Odd Title award, though. The first winner, in 1978, was for Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice. Anyone who even glances at certain general-interest science journals and magazines from time to time knows about nude mice and why they are useful in biomedical research. This is not weird, irrelevant fringe-research.

I would find an Odd Title contest more interesting and less alarming if the eligible titles weren't chosen so much out of techno-ignorance. I realize, though, that fiction books may be deliberately given a strange title, and therefore they aren't quite as unselfconsciously odd.

Perhaps a compromise might be novels with names that appear to be technical manuals, e.g. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Marina Lewyck), which I read a couple of years ago, primarily because of its title.


Unknown said...

On a side note, even scientists switching fields can be bewildered and amused by the technical terms around their new home. While being trained in cell biology and cell culture (my background is mechanical engineering), I was startled to see my protocol instruct me to use a "rubber policeman." The lab's freezer inventory listed, besides lysates, antibodies, and other recognizable terms, two (2) "Mr. Frosty." And I'm sure I looked twice the first time I saw a reference to nude mice.

Ambitwistor said...

My favorite paper title is "Deconstructing noncommutativity with a giant fuzzy moose". (No doubt intentionally bizarre, but using valid string theory jargon.)

John Vidale said...

Changed my name to distinguish myself from other John's.

The Tractors book is a special case. It contains as a subplot sections on obscure tractor history, the author's father had written a real technical book on the history of tractors.

It is very good, and I'd be interested to hear if other books have a similar blend of technology, history and good humor.

Anonymous said...

I once saw a seminar about the interaction of tropical vegetation with the nighttime atmosphere, titled:

Intermittent nocturnal coupling in the Amazon rainforest.

BugMan said...

“It can lead, for example, to suspicion and disapproval about how federal funds are spent; e.g. the recent infamous incidents involving rants by politicians about bear DNA studies and volcano monitoring.” – FSP

Visions of the late Senator Proxmire and his infamous “Golden Fleece” award come to mind. This award was invariable given to a federally funded scientific article with a title that the public might find amusing, but which would make perfect sense to someone working it that field of research.

For example, Mohr’s classic paper on ecological succession in cow manure (Mohr, C.O. 1943. Cattle droppings as ecological units. Ecol. Monogr. 13:275-298), would surely have struck the public as a waste of federal funds (assuming it was federally funded), and would surely have received a “golden fleece” award (assuming Sen. Proxmire became aware of it).

Kevin said...

I had the same reaction to the "odd title". It was a not very interesting technical publication. As a "joke" it wasn't even approaching amusing.

Now there are some titles I find amusing---for example, there is (or was) a civil engineering review publication called "Concrete Abstracts".

John Vidale said...

Some Federally-funded research DOES have little practical use, and may deserve to be examined by the general public to assess whether it is how they want to spend their tax dollars. Proxmire was sometimes fair, other times unfair, but the issue is real.

Gov. Jindal has been mocked because volcano monitoring is effective, which he chose to deny in his ill-chosen remarks, and worse, they only threaten people far from his state, revealing him as parochial on a national stage.

Anonymous said...

I think "Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice" is absolutely hilarious, regardless of the significance of the mice.

After reading your links, I have an image of Courtney Love invited to give the keynote address at the Third International Workshop on Nude Mice. Or someone presenting on the feasibility of very small bulging trousers for those mice to wear!!

Toaster Sunshine said...

I still laugh whenever someone's talking about y anti-x antibodies. I start trying to visualize a rabbit anti-mouse and invariably crack up.

Politicians are first and foremost agenda-driven demagogues. As such, they will seize and distort most anything that serves their purposes, science included.

aceon said...

John, I haven't read the Tractors book, but if you haven't read John McPhee, you might like him. He's got a combination of history and technology in a lot of his books and essays, though maybe a little light on the humor. He's a master at connecting with scientists and people of all professions and presenting them and their work in writing.

alkali said...

Perhaps it's less that the subject material is bizarre and more that most people are surprised to see an entire book devoted to [obscure subject]. I remember wandering into my university's library as a freshman and thinking, on seeing some of the book titles, "How could you possibly fill so many pages talking about such a narrow subject??" I suppose it still doesn't make much sense to call them "odd book titles," though.

Dr Spouse said...

While working as a postdoc in a US city near Mexico, I (US citizen) went with a UK citizen postdoc friend (work visa) and a visiting friend of his (visitor's visa) to Mexico for the day.

On our return, the postdoc, non-citizen friend was quizzed by the immigration guy:
"So, what do you do?"
NCF tries to explain his research (he can be, er, long-winded at times. Well, he's a scientist)
"Er... Is it any use, then, what you do?"

We decided that this would probably be the government's new funding criterion: if the immigration guy thinks it's any use, you can have some funding.

John Vidale said...


thanks for the McPhee pointer. I read one of his books a while back, and he is probably worth going back to.

Paul Gribble said...

Scientists should all take a formal course in writing. They should also study graphic design