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The 6 Greatest Acts of Trolling in the History of Science

#3. Alan Sokal Trolls Academia With a Bullshit Paper

The 1990s saw the rise of postmodern academics that insisted that "science," as we know it, was based more on prejudice than actual objective discovery. Most scientists didn't know what to make of this argument, because they were under the impression that they'd been doing math problems and pouring things into beakers, not trying to fulfill some latent patriarchal and/or racial agenda. Thus the "science wars" began, which sounds like something that should have been astounding, but wound up being fought inside universities with protracted silences and strongly worded letters, rather than spaceships and laser cannons.

Enter quantum physicist Alan Sokal.

Sven Klinge
Otherwise known as "Generico Scienceface."

By 1996, he was sick of postmodernism and decided to troll the community in hopes of exposing their bullshit (which to be honest has been the mission statement of every troll in history, albeit with varying degrees of applicability). Sokal submitted a bloated, meandering nonsense pile of an article to a postmodern academic journal, seeing if they would publish his paper simply because it supported the postmodern viewpoint of science being an ideological hammer made of sexist white supremacy (this would be similar to Fox News running a story written by some Appalachian lunatic with self-made dentures whittled from squirrel bones simply because it agreed with fiscal conservatism). And they totally published it.

In the paper, Sokal makes several inside jokes to fellow mathematicians and creates an absurd argument that quantum gravity and its formulations support liberalism. Hell, the quote he begins the paper with literally says he is playing a trick on the journal:


With an accompanying drawing.

"Transgressing disciplinary boundaries ... [is] a subversive undertaking since it is likely to violate the sanctuaries of accepted ways of perceiving. Among the most fortified boundaries have been those between the natural sciences and the humanities."

And it goes on and on like that. When the article was published, Sokal gave an interview to a different journal in which he divulged that the entire paper was a hoax, causing an immediate shit cyclone (or, since we're talking science here, a shit Coke-bottle tornado that you made in science class). The postmodernists tried to contain the damage, but the story quickly went mainstream, and they were mocked into disgrace.

Getty
And they were all demoted to "chicken weighers."

#2. Carl Siegel Throws His Colleague's Thesis into the Ocean

Carl Siegel and Erich Bessel-Hagen were the Starsky and Hutch of 19th century German mathematicians, so when Bessel-Hagen needed someone to review his thesis, he could think of no one better than his buddy Siegel. Siegel agreed, because that's what friends do, and decided to go over the thesis while he was taking a boat trip, because nothing makes the time fly quite like kicking back with some relaxing calculus of variations and function theory.

However, Siegel was busy with his own work in a completely unrelated field, so he found the thesis to be a tad boring and stupid (evidently people in the 1800s did all of their science on boats). Seeing as Bessel-Hagen was such a good friend, Siegel quietly packed the thesis away so he could just look it over another time ... is what we would have said, if that's what Siegel had done. What he actually did was toss it overboard like a cursed book of spells he'd suddenly found beneath an oar.


"Don't worry, I built a monument to how sucky your thesis actually was."

That's right: He took his best friend's thesis, the culmination of hundreds of hours of dedicated work, and chucked it into the goddamn ocean like a McDonald's wrapper. Keep in mind that this was the 19th century -- Kinko's and Copy Shops were pretty thin on the ground. This means that the thesis now decorating the bottom of the sea was the only copy in existence. We lose our minds if we accidentally delete a Skyrim save, so Bessel-Hagen was presumably ready to stab Siegel to death with his own jawbone.

To top it off, Siegel told Bessel-Hagen that he had done it for his own good, and he dutifully noted the coordinates of the place where he had disposed of his friend's work for reasons we cannot begin to imagine. A stack of paper doesn't sink like a treasure chest, and regardless, scuba diving was still many years from being a thing. Maybe he thought Bessel-Hagen would like to paddle out with a candle and a bottle of scotch for a quiet moment of reflection.


He lived the rest of his life with that look on his face.

#1. Galileo Trolls the Pope

Everyone knows the Galileo story as another instance of the Catholic church flexing its muscles and putting science in the corner. But the actual story is far more complex, and at the center of it lies a pretty spectacular troll.

You see, back in Galileo's day, there were three competing models of the universe. Two of them were your basic theology-approved geocentric theories, while the third, called the Copernican model, held that the Earth and the rest of the planets orbited the sun. Scientists of the time pretty much stuck to the "everything revolves around the Earth" school, because they didn't want to get stoned to death. Also, there were a couple of Mr.-Stay-Puft-sized holes in the Copernican theory, most notably the lack of observable stellar parallax, which is how astronomers determine the relative distance of celestial bodies (while simultaneously being a howlingly bitching name for a space rock band).

Photos.com
"Ladies and gen- wait, really? We wasted that name on these fucking idiots?"

Basically, all the best evidence of the day pointed to geocentrism. Galileo himself was never able to offer conclusive proof of the Copernican theory, and he got key details, like the shape of planetary orbits, completely wrong.

So, Galileo was instructed to teach the Copernican model only as one of many possible theories. After a few chats with Pope Urban VIII about the relevant science (because that was a thing people used to have to do), Galileo told His Eminence that he was going to write a book presenting the theories as objectively as possible and in layman's terms. What he did instead was spray out Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems like a hateful jet of burningly contrary diarrhea into the face of the man who could have his fingernails pulled out for coughing in church.


"You're lucky I'm busy delivering toys to all the world's children this month."

The Dialogue was standard-issue pop science, essentially an Al Gore movie without all the wistful sighing. It was written as a discussion between three characters, although Galileo makes it painfully clear which character he believes is correct and which characters he believes are nose-picking shitheads. To top it off, he used arguments the Pope had made to him in private conversation and had them spoken by the character Simplicio, who was depicted as a 17th century Pauly Shore. He might as well have called the character Idioticci and included illustrations of him in a papal hat. You may recognize this as a world-class piece of troll bait.

And as a result, the "moderators" (the Inquisition) stepped in and banned Galileo from the "forum" (public life). Yeah, trolling doesn't always work out the way you want it to.



Andrew Bensley can be found occasionally writing semi-humorous words on the Twitter, and you can troll Steve on his shoddy blog BuyDemocracy.



For experiments that seem like trolling, check out The 10 Craziest Scientific Experiments Ever Conducted and 5 Psych Experiments That Sounded Fun (Until They Started).

If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 'The Dark Knight Rises': The 30-Second Version.

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