The 6 Greatest Acts of Trolling in the History of Science
Science, we assume, involves stuffed-shirt intellectuals engaged in the noble pursuit of knowledge and discovery. And we tend to think of "trolls" as basement-dwelling hate machines who enjoy antagonistic lunacy as its own reward. You would think there wouldn't be much overlap between these two groups. You would be wrong.
Science has seen some epic trolling over the years, so much so that it at times makes 4chan look like a chamber of reasoned discourse.
Johann Beringer Gets Trolled by Fake Fossils
In the early 18th century, giant-ass dinosaur bones and other fossils were being dug up all over the place, but people had no idea where the hell they came from. Religion still had a firm grip on the scientific community, so the notion that the fossils could belong to a species of animal that had since become extinct was rejected by many, and even considered blasphemous, since God would never allow any of his creations to simply die out. Some people even argued that God had buried the bones himself to test their faith, because rationality occasionally hangs by a very fine thread.
"What an odd shape the sand sometimes takes, huh?"
A particularly vocal supporter of this theory was Johann Beringer, the head of the natural history department of the University of Wurzburg in Germany. He was firmly convinced that all fossils were "hidden by the Author of Nature for his own pleasure," although a fair elaboration of what that "pleasure" might have been was never fully provided. And honestly, we don't understand why someone so devoutly religious would be so firmly adherent to the idea that God threw a bunch of bones down to Earth just to screw with people, because it sure makes the Almighty sound like a giant douchemungus.
Anyway, two colleagues of Beringer, J. Ignatz Roderick and Georg von Eckhart, decided they actually would carve strange fake fossils and bury them to screw with Beringer. Instead of calling bullshit the second he saw the obvious (we cannot stress that word enough) forgeries, Beringer couldn't believe his luck. Figuring he had won the fossil lottery (that's a thing, right?), he scooped them up and tossed them into his fossil sack (that's a thing, right?) to carry them home for further analysis. Heartened by this (a phrase here meaning "laughing their scientific dicks off"), Roderick and Eckhart made even more fossils for Beringer to find. These new ones were engraved with Syrian, Hebrew, and Babylonian inscriptions, including one engraved with the word "Jehovah," the Hebrew name for God.
"There's another one over here!"
Astonishingly, Beringer ate the whole thing up. He published a book cataloging his amazing finds in which he actually wrote that the fossils were "so exactly fitted to the dimensions of the stones, that one would swear that they are the work of a very meticulous sculptor." Even when Roderick and Eckhart tried to tell him they'd tricked him (their sides having been sufficiently split by joyous guffaws), he refused to believe them. Instead, Beringer accused them of trying to shake his faith and block the publication of his work.
It wasn't until after publishing his Lithographiae Wirceburgensis, when Beringer found yet another miraculous fossil with his own goddamn name on it, that he finally accepted that he'd been bamboozled. He spent the next few years in a legal battle with Roderick and Eckhart (who, in their defense, had tried to tell him), while simultaneously trying to buy up all the copies of his book to save his reputation. Bizarrely, it was Eckhart and Roderick who were disgraced for perpetrating the hoax, while Beringer kept his job and wrote several more books despite being a demonstrably terrible scientist.
These are some of the actual stones, displayed at Teylers Museum in Haarlem, Netherlands.
Electricity Turns Everyone into Trolls
Before the 18th century, we had a tough time wrapping our minds around electricity (things like lightning were best described as "Zeus' space magic" and went no further than that). However, once electricity was better understood and batteries were finally constructed in the form of Leyden jars, one of the first practical applications people discovered for this newly harnessed energy was using it to shock the balls out of each other.
"There is no possible better use for this technology."
One of electricity's inaugural trollings was accomplished by Jean-Antoine Nollet, who had the Royal Guards of Louis XV line up while holding a length of wire between them for a demonstration to the royal court of France (the word "demonstration" here meaning "he electro-blasted the urine from their bladders"). Later, he repeated the "experiment" with 200 French monks, who lined up just like the Royal Guards and had their vows of silence zapped out of them. In neither case did he bother to explain to his volunteers what exactly he was about to do to them, presumably leaving it at "Stand here and hold this. Get ready for science."
Not to be outdone by the French, German physicist George Bose hosted parties where he would rig a beautiful young girl with a charge and then invite men to kiss her, giving them a shock that almost "knocked their teeth out." This setup apparently worked often enough, despite easily being the most suspicious thing of all time.
Evidently they were too blinded by boner fatigue to notice him hand-cranking an alternator.
Benjamin Franklin eventually got involved, because back then there was pretty much nothing that escaped his attention. Franklin focused on how electricity could be used for the betterment of society, which is another way of saying "the betterment of Ben Franklin's afternoons." One of his first antics was to electrify his front gate, presumably to confuse and terrify neighborhood children while he watched from the foyer and laughed his ass off. He then proceeded to electrify everything in his house, including metal spiders (for some reason), floor panels, and the wine glasses of dinner guests, burning their lips with white-hot electricity if they tried to take a sip. He even rigged the crown on a portrait of King George to give anyone touching it a "high-treason shock," because hijinks are the apogee of science.
His enthusiasm spread to fellow Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, who purchased a small Leyden jar that he could hide in his pocket to shock anyone who touched him, because apparently the impending revolution wasn't quite enough to occupy these gentlemen's time.
"Hey. Hey, Ben. Take this paper from me. Seriously, it's super important. Ben. Hey, Ben."
Sir Richard Owen Trolls His Rival's Death
Sure, Sir Richard Owen once got into a bitter flame war with Charles Darwin that seriously devalued the discussion of evolution as a legitimate theory and brought about his own professional ruin. But that's not what makes him one of the greatest trolls science has ever seen.
Sir Richard Owen was a scientist who pioneered the field of paleontology by plagiarizing the work of a colleague named Gideon Mantell, then used his clout to crush Mantell, leaving the man to die poor, crippled, and unrecognized. And after Mantell was dead, Owen only stepped up his campaign.
Holy shit, that's Scrooge!
First, Mantell's obituary was written by Owen himself (under a pseudonym) and predictably boiled down to "Ha ha, look at this dead asshole." Then, Mantell's spine was placed in a museum for scientific study. He had badly broken his back years earlier in a carriage accident, and his lower vertebrae had twisted and fused back into place in a manner that can only be described as "tit-blastingly wrong." And who should be in charge of the museum that took control of Mantell's mutant spinal column? None other than Sir Richard "I shit on your grave" Owen, who immediately seized this opportunity to skip the rope of dickitry across Mantell's already belittled legacy.
After stealing Mantell's life's work and diminishing his career to the level of "sparse Wikipedia entry," Owen took the spine and had it pickled in a jar to demonstrate "the severest degree of deformity," where it was placed on display alongside other "monstrosities," presumably on a shelf labeled "TROLLOLOLOL."
"This is nothing compared to the size of the bone I gave your mother. I fucking dare you to haunt me."
Owen died in 1892, but as one final "kiss my ass" from beyond the grave, Mantell's spine was unceremoniously tossed in the garbage in the 1970s when the museum cleared out a bunch of old bullshit that nobody cared about anymore.
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.
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 ... 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.
And they were all demoted to "chicken weighers."
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.
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).
"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.