The 5 Most Epic Acts of Trolling in the History of Science
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.
A Doctor Invented the Tale of the Civil War Testicle Musket ... and We're Still Hearing It Today
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.
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."
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.
An Eccentric Naturalist Made Fake Animals Just to Screw With People
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."
John Hill Waged a Troll War on the Royal Society
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.
A Nuclear Physicist Pranked His Minders During the Manhattan Project
For some of us, our greatest achievement in college had something to do with drinking alcohol while suspended upside down. For the genius science student Richard Feynman, however, the greatest achievement of his school career was getting invited to participate in the Manhattan Project, the secret research undertaking that resulted in the atom bomb. But he was still a college kid at heart.
For example, he also developed the atom bomb cocktail. While suspended upside down.
See, unfortunately for Feynman, getting holed up in a hidden enclave in New Mexico was bad news, not just because he was helping with the development of a weapon that would eventually result in hundreds of thousands of deaths, but because he was separated from the love of his life. His young wife was sick and dying just a few towns over, but the project overlords weren't keen on their scientists communicating with the outside world for some weird reason.
So Mr. and Mrs. Feynman decided to start fucking with the powers that be by sending each other letters in code. This tomfoolery got Feynman reprimanded, so the next time he wrote a coded letter to his wife, he included a cipher for the censor's benefit. In another instance, Mrs. Feynman sent her husband an ad for a blank jigsaw puzzle, implying that her next letter would come in a thousand pieces that he (and the censors) could put together. When Feynman got the ad, he also received a note from his superiors requesting that his wife find better ways to spend her time. But other than the wrist slaps, there wasn't a whole lot Feynman's minders could do -- he was, after all, one of their most important scientists on one of the most profoundly world-changing projects in history.
"We would yell at him, sir, but that's just what Hitler wants."
And so Feynman didn't just limit himself to messing with his censors. He also used his math skills to crack safes and "steal" atomic secrets, which he just left lying around out in the open so his colleagues would get paranoid. Eventually, Feynman's reputation as a safecracker got so good that everyone at one Manhattan Project location was instructed to change their safe combinations before Dr. Goofs-a-lot got on site.
Then he topped it all off by unleashing a technological horror unlike anything the world had ever seen.
A Scientist Got Screwed Out of Credit for the Big Bang Theory ... for a Stupid Pun
In 1948, Ralph Alpher, a student of Professor George Gamow, was working on his doctoral dissertation. This wasn't some insignificant little bullshit research paper, either: It was a revolutionary concept that paved the way for a thing you might have heard of called the Big Bang theory (the cosmological model of the universe, not the TV show, which incidentally also has a history of trolling the science community). After years of toil, his results were finally ready for publication, to be credited to himself and Gamow, a formality given to doctoral advisers. Just before sending off the announcement to The Physical Review, however, Gamow noticed something that gave him a chuckle.
"Tee hee, he said 'bang'"?
Gamow was friends with another renowned physicist named Hans Bethe, and he realized that by giving Bethe a co-author credit, their names would create a pun on the Greek alphabet: Alpher, Bethe, Gamow (the first three letters of the Greek alphabet being alpha, beta, and gamma, in case you liked to nap in Greek alphabet class). After determining that he was, indeed, that much of a fucking nerd, Gamow couldn't resist the addition, presumably while snorting and pushing up the bridge of his glasses.
As a result, Ralph Alpher (who, if you say it out loud, you'll realize was probably pretty goddamn sick of name jokes by this point in his life) found out what happens when you share a byline with two much more celebrated veteran scientists: He was completely forgotten.
It wasn't even the first time he'd been humiliated at college thanks to Greek letters.
Yep, most physicists today remember only Bethe and Gamow as the minds behind the theory. The theory that, again, Alpher pretty much single-handedly developed. All because his professor thought their names looked funnier on the byline.
You can troll Steve on his blog. If you don't check out more from Amanda at Mannafesto and follow her on Twitter, you're probably not a very nice person. They would like to thank David Reidy for pointing out Feynman's safe-cracking exploits.
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