We tend to think of scientists as stiff-necked, humorless types who are so wrapped up in their beakers and safety goggles that they wouldn't know a joke if it bit them in their uptight buttocks. Well, some scientists not only have a sense of humor, but can be sassy little shits if you give them half a chance ... even if it means damaging their own careers or entire scientific fields in the process.
You may have heard the story about a Civil War-era girl who got pregnant after a bullet passed through a soldier's teste-tote and then hit her in the abdomen (it was the subject of a MythBusters episode). While it sounds like some dumb urban legend dreamed up by Confederate soldiers trying to drown their hookworms in moonshine, the anecdote actually came from a doctor named Legrand Capers, who was evidently terrible at picking the right venue for his jokes.
Library of Congress
People in his theater giggled, but only because he gave them gas and drugs.
In an era when the funniest thing going on was Charles Dickens' character names, Capers thought he'd have a little fun by anonymously submitting the story of the bullet-impregnated virgin to a medical journal called American Medical Weekly. He was probably thinking they'd all have a laugh and the journal would know better than to publish the story. Surely the detail that the kid was born with a bullet in his ball sack would give the publishers pause. This wasn't the Daily Mail, after all.
Yet the story of the woman who got pregnant via sperm-soaked bullet was published in the November 1874 issue of the journal, and even worse, despite submitting the tall tale anonymously, Capers was listed as the author. The editor took one look at Capers' anonymous bullshit and said, "I know that handwriting!" (because apparently in 1874 everyone was a certified handwriting expert). So instead of letting Capers play like an anonymous Internet commenter presenting a bucket of manure as fact, the editor attached his name to the stupid story. As a result, Capers' reputation took a nut shot of its own, and his image shifted from pre-eminent Southern surgeon to "the dude who wrote about the sperm bullet."
James O. Breeden
Ol' Stoneball Jackson.
More than 130 years later, the ridiculous story is still getting passed around as real, to the point that TV shows and Snopes have to regularly remind everyone it isn't true. That's kind of impressive in its own right, we suppose.
We cannot sum up how aggressively crazy naturalist Charles Waterton was better than this picture can:
He called it a "lolcat." He alone laughed.
This is probably a good place to mention that taxidermy was one of Waterton's specialties. The portrait above isn't just a guy posing with a bird and a cat who happens to be wearing a table for a dress. What you are seeing is an example of Waterton's most subtle, restrained work. His other work looked more like this:
As with modern trolls, his fetishes defied description.
The picture above is Waterton's interpretation of a political cartoon, only instead of using ink and paper like a normal-brained person, Waterton used a collection of dead animal parts to get his metaphor across. This particular monstrosity is about England's national debt. Don't see it? The tortoise shell represents the national debt, and the dog/bear/person-faced mammal thing represents ... fuck. We don't know. We don't want to look at it anymore. You know you're dealing with crazy when any clumsy metaphor is an excuse to mold a human face out of animal skin.
But even that isn't what qualifies him as one of the great trolls in science history. When not playing seamstress with animal skins, Waterton was a prominent explorer and observer of nature. And he was really good at his job -- so good that the granddaddy of evolution himself, Charles Darwin, cited Waterton's Essays on Natural History as an inspiration. Well, in 1821, Waterton returned from one of his many South American voyages with an odd specimen he called the Nondescript and claimed that he had hunted this humanoid creature in the Amazonian rain forest. The problem was twofold: One, nobody had ever seen a Nondescript before ... so maybe it wasn't a real animal.
It's a hoax! Wake up, sheeple!
(Waterton also captured and displayed several sheeple.)
And two, people thought his so-called animal bore a striking resemblance to a high-ranking customs official that Waterton had had troubles with in the past. And they were right. While in South America, Waterton found a monkey's ass and skillfully taxidermied the thing to make it look like a customs official named Mr. Lushington. Then he made the illustration of the ass-faced man the centerpiece of his book Wanderings in South America.
When everyone called out Waterton on the resemblance, he responded that of course the Nondescript was genuine, since "nobody to date had the taxidermy skills to effect such a beautiful fraud," probably while giving himself a big toothy smile in the mirror. So Charles Waterton Frankensteined a monkey's butt to look like a guy he had a grudge against, then proceeded with the rest of his career as if it never happened. Meanwhile, the serious naturalists who discovered the duck-billed platypus were rejected whole cloth, thanks to the Nondescript. "Surely this animal is a beaver and a duck hot glued together by our eccentric friend Mr. Waterton!"
"And styled to resemble another of Waterton's old enemies: your mother."
If you've spent time hanging out in an Internet comment section or message board, you're familiar with the dedicated comment trolls: people who come back under one fake username after another for months or even years, purely to post offensive, attention-begging bullshit. Well, scientist John Hill perfected the art generations ago.
The trollface meme is based on the shape of his head.
His life as a career troll started with a petty feud. After several of his papers were published by Britain's most prestigious academic club, the Royal Society, Hill thought he was a lock for membership and his career was set. Unfortunately for him, the society didn't see wig to wig on nominating Hill for their club, so Hill did what any troll in the same situation would do: He dedicated himself to a lifetime of petty, pointless revenge.
Instead of plugging away at real research, Hill spent the next few years publishing fake reviews of Royal Society meetings, claiming that the once-prestigious scientific organization was now debating things like the best way to make fish shine, how to deal with demons in coal mines, and whether sperm are little people that expand like some kid's bathtub sponge toys. Hill even took it a step further and published a fake pamphlet in the society's name that said women could become pregnant simply by breathing in these little sperm, essentially nullifying paternity.
Historians have trouble studying the document because the pages stick together from the, uh, air.
In the true troll spirit of fishing for responses, Hill succeeded remarkably. Researchers at the Royal Society recently found a manuscript of one of his "reviews" that his rivals had annotated the shit out of in an attempt to respond to every one of his points, even renaming his paper "A Lying and Abusive Representation of the Works of the Royal Society ... by John Hill, Herb Gatherer." The Royal Society also banned Hill for life.
And, like any Internet troll banned from a website, Hill used every outlet he could to voice his distaste for the haters, usually by publishing personal attacks under fake names. The flame war culminated in a mocking poem making fun of Hill, "The Hilliad." So he actually did manage to discover something every webmaster would find helpful today: If you give trolls the attention they want, they win.