Employing the Timeline and Cross-Sectional Methods to Study the Change in the Color of Leaves During AutumnRead Now
Scientists often need to evaluate how a group of entities changes over time in response to some natural or man-made processes. Such entities can be the animals or plants belonging to a species, or they can be non-living things such as the glaciers, rivers, or mountains in a given area. To do this, scientists could try to study all the entities they want to evaluate, but this is often too costly, impractical, or impossible. So to make possible this evaluation, scientists may use one of two methods. I will illustrate these methods by applying them to the study of the change in leaf color during the fall.
The Timeline Method
The first method is the timeline method. This method involves following some entities over time during the period of interest and documenting how they change. The idea is then that the change of the overall population or group can be extrapolated from the change of the particular entities that are followed.
I used the timeline method to document how the leaves changed during one week in the autumn in a maple tree in my neighborhood. The genus of maples is Acer, but I don’t know the species of this particular tree. The color of the majority of the leaves of the tree had already begun to change and many had already fallen. I selected several of the low lying leaves that were still mostly green, wrapped the stems with tape, assigned them a number, and photographed them. Over the next six days I came back more or less at the same time of day taking pictures of the leaves I had selected. During those 6 days the tree lost most of its leaves as can be seen below.
I show below the change in leaf color of six leaves on the tree over the observation period of six days. Each column corresponds to one day. Some of the leaves fell between days 5 and 6, but I was able to retrieve them from the ground and photograph them.
You can see that the leaves change color at different rates and the transition is far from homogeneous. In some cases there are spots of intense red color that appear and then spread, whereas in other cases the green over an area of the leaves fades and is replaced by a diffuse red. The green color is, of course, the pigment chlorophyll which is degraded during the fall. In the particular case of maples, as chlorophyll is degraded, the leaves produce another pigment called anthocyanin which is responsible for the red color and may play a protective role during leaf senescence.
The timeline method will work best if the entities under study and the way they change are representative of the overall population under study. As the leaves I chose to study were the most accessible ones at the bottom of the tree, they may not be wholly representative of the changes in the leaves at the top of the tree. Other differences may be caused by variables such as disease, amount of available sunlight, etc. Ideally I should have taken a larger sample from leaves in different parts of the tree at several heights and evaluated them over time.
The Cross-Sectional Method
As you saw above, at any given time there are a number of leaves at different stages of their color changing process. This fact allows the application of the cross-sectional method. To apply this method, I photographed several leaves in the first day (a cross section in time) and using these leaves I put together a possible sequence of leaf color change that describes the overall process as shown below from top left to bottom right.
The cross-sectional method involves much less work than the timeline method, and is intended to be an overall representation of the change of leaf color in the tree. However, care must be taken in selecting the individual leaves to put together the representative leaf change sequence. There are some obvious differences between the sequence I put together using the cross-sectional method and the changes displayed by the individual leaves using the timeline method. In particular, the appearance of the red color and its boundary in the cross-sectional sequence seems to be more vivid, sharper, and circumscribed than that displayed by the change in most of the individuals leaves I studied. If I repeat this study, I have to be more careful in my methodology and select a wider variety of leaves.
The timeline and cross-sectional methods have many applications in science.
An example of an application of the timeline method in the present is using radio-tracking technology (nowadays improved by satellite and GPS systems) and genetic monitoring to study movements of wildlife populations and the way they change over time. But scientists can also use the timeline method to study living things in the past. Because living things changing through time leave a sequential record of their change in rocks (fossils) and also to a certain extent in the stages of an embryo’s development, scientists can use fossils and embryology to piece together how organisms evolved over millions of years. The timeline method can also be applied to study how non-living things changed in the past. For example, scientists have measured the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) trapped in air bubbles inside the ice of the polar caps going back hundreds of thousands of years, obtaining important information regarding how this relates to atmospheric temperatures and global warming.
Ideally the timeline method is preferable to the cross-sectional method, but the cross-sectional method is sometimes the method of choice if there are restrictions in time or resources available for the study, or in the case of processes that occur over very long intervals of time without leaving any records. Studying the genes or proteins of living organisms and comparing them to each other to figure out their interrelationships is an application of the cross-sectional method. A remarkable application of the cross-sectional method is the study of galaxy collisions. These events take billions of years, so it’s impossible to follow them over time. To study galaxy collisions, astronomers photograph galaxies in different stages of collision (cross section) and write programs to explain the different stages they observe in the process as described in the video below.
The timeline and the cross-sectional methods allow scientists to peer back in time and uncover the changes that took place in the past and how they shaped the present, and to uncover which changes are taking place in the present and how they may shape the future.
The photographs belong to the author and can only be used with permission.
The Conspiracy Theory that Went Bust
Some of the proponents of the drug hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) have put forward a conspiracy theory to explain the negative results for the drug in some clinical trials. They claim that the scientists running the trials have sold out to pharmaceutical companies and designed the trials in such a way as to make HCQ fail the trials. The alleged reason for doing this is to favor more expensive alternatives such as the drug remdesevir from Gilead Sciences and vaccines or antibodies made by other companies. This convoluted conspiracy theory has grown to encompass a worldwide network of scientists that have sold out in this fashion and to even involve organizations such as the Gates Foundation and the World Health Organization that are also allegedly colluding with the pharmaceutical companies.
This vast network of colluding scientists from different countries using different sources of funding and engaging in behavior contrary to the principles of the organizations for which they work, is not only very unlikely but the most basic tenets of the conspiracy theory are not even coherent. I have mentioned before that the same trial that found that HCQ was not effective against COVID-19 (the Recovery trial), also found that dexamethasone was effective in advanced cases of the disease. Steroids like dexamethasone are cheap generic drugs. Why would scientists colluding with pharmaceutical companies design the trials to torpedo one cheap drug (HCQ) but not another one (dexamethasone)?
But there is more.
Recently the results of the Solidarity trial sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO) were published. It was already known that the trial had not found HCQ to be effective and this fanned the conspiracy theory, but another result of the trial was that remdesivir was not effective too! Why would the WHO betray their pharma overlords by trashing their drug? The answer is that the WHO didn’t because there was no one to betray. The vast majority of scientists involved in this research are honest individuals who are genuinely interested in finding whether these drugs work against a terrible disease. These scientists designed and performed clinical trials to the best of their abilities to obtain answers. This is how science is supposed to work. No ulterior motives, no deceit, and no conspiracy: just the facts, the evidence, and the truth.
The Accusation that Fell Flat
The attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci continue due to his resistance to accept that hydroxychloroquine works. Dr. Fauci has stated:
“The point that I think is important, because we all want to keep an open mind, any and all of the randomized placebo-controlled trials, which is the gold standard of determining if something is effective, none of them had shown any efficacy by hydroxychloroquine. Having said that, I will state, when I do see a randomized placebo-controlled trial that looks at any aspect of hydroxychloroquine, either early study, middle study, or late, if that randomized placebo-controlled trial shows efficacy, I would be the first one to admit it and to promote it. But I have not seen yet a randomized placebo-controlled trial that’s done that. And in fact, every randomized placebo-controlled trial that has looked at it, has shown no efficacy. So, I just have to go with the data. I don’t have any horse in the game one way or the other, I just look at the data.”
This is the comment we would expect from a scientist like Dr. Fauci, Just show him a well-designed study that shows that HCQ is effective and he will change his mind. Makes sense right? But no, HCQ proponents will have none of it. They claim the evidence for HCQ is overwhelming (it isn’t), but it is being suppressed by a massive disinformation campaign (which is really an attempt by responsible organizations and individuals to counter misinformation about HCQ). And they have found another way to attack Dr. Fauci. They claim that the lack of acceptance of the effectiveness of HCQ by Fauci is killing people!
The Yale epidemiologist Harvey Risch and others have stated that back in the 1980s Dr. Fauci refused to issue guidelines for physicians to consider the prophylactic use of an antibiotic (Bactrim) to prevent an opportunistic infection (pneumocystis pneumonia) in AIDS patients because he considered there was not enough data, and this led to the preventable deaths of 17,000 people. They claim that Fauci is doing this again with HCQ and that people who could be saved are dying. This new accusation has reached a fevered pitch with claims that Dr. Fauci is a mass murderer. The notorious HCQ proponent Vladimir Zelenko is circulating a petition to the White House to bring several individuals including Dr. Fauci to justice for “Crimes Against Humanity / Mass Murder”.
There are several things that have to be understood by Fauci’s critics.
The first is that, as I have explained before, the job of doctors is to save their patients and improve their lives, and doctors have the freedom to treat patients as they see fit. On the other hand, the job of scientists like Fauci is to try to figure out what works and what doesn’t based on the evidence. During times when a disease ravages society, the use of many drugs that may or may not work is often proposed. These drugs can be prescribed by doctors, but they should not be endorsed by scientists. There is a scientific discussion that has to take place and the evidence has to be generated and/or evaluated. Dr. Fauci cannot endorse a drug for which the evidence is deficient. In any case Dr. Fauci himself has stated that he had no authority to issue guidelines, but he offered to help with carrying out a clinical trial.
The second thing is that Fauci is not the type of callous person that he is made out to be by HCQ proponents. Just consider that their accusations are remarkably similar to those levied upon Fauci by the notorious AIDS activist Larry Kramer back in the 1980s who besides calling him a murderer also said Fauci was a Nazi who should be put in front of a firing squad. Larry Kramer eventually befriended Fauci and he and other AIDS activists worked together with Fauci to make improvements to the clinical trial system which has saved many lives and given patients more control over the process.
And finally, just consider Fauci’s achievements. Apart from what I mentioned above regarding the modification of the clinical trials system, Fauci has not only made many scientific contributions that have advanced our knowledge of disease as well as developing effective therapies against diseases, but he has been among the architects of major programs such as PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) which has saved the lives of 18 million (!) people in Africa. In recognition for his work in creating the PEPFAR program, President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008.
Fortunately, this accusation by HCQ proponents that Fauci is a murderer has fallen flat. The vast majority of people understand that Dr. Fauci is an exceptional individual both as a scientist and as a person. The vast majority of people also understand that those levying these accusations against Fauci have now pushed themselves further into a fringe and lost all credibility.
The image of Dr. Fauci ny NIAID is used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license. The conspiracy sign by Nick Youngson from Picpedia.Org (used here under a Creative Commons 3 - CC BY-SA 3.0 license), the public domain image of hydroxychloroquine by Fvasconcellos, and the public domain coronavirus image by Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM, from the CDC's Public Health Image Library were modified and merged.
One of the things you learn as a scientist is to be skeptical of stories. By stories I mean narratives that scientists have put together to try to explain certain observations, to explain how some things work, or to suggest new ways of doing things that may be more effective than the old approaches. And the way you learn to be skeptical of stories is through the experience of witnessing countless numbers of them crash and burn over the years. We scientists try to discover reality, but the problem is that reality is often more complicated and nuanced than we can imagine. The English biologist Thomas Huxley once encapsulated this in his famous dictum: The great tragedy of Science—the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.
Because scientists are human, they tend to fall in love with their ideas and bring to the front in their arguments all the evidence that suggests those ideas are true while overlooking evidence that indicates the opposite. But thankfully these biases are countered by experience. As a scientist, I have lost track of how many times I thought I understood how things worked only to have my ideas disproved by the next experiment. As a scientist, I have also lost track of the number of times I became enamored of a beautiful idea proposed by a scientist only to read later that another scientist had performed an experiment that refuted it. After years of being exposed to this process, you tend to be wary of anything new that sounds too good, and this experience is a fundamental part of the development of a skeptical scientific mindset.
I remarked before that one of the problems we have in science communication is that now people without training as scientists have access to information intended only for experts. The vast majority of these people do not have the experience I outlined above. As a result of this, I am witnessing many of these individuals become infatuated by unverified hypotheses to the point of aggressively defending them in social media and arguing that these hypotheses have been proven to be true by what is nothing but substandard evidence.
A case in point is the hypothesis that hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) and/or its combination with zinc is effective against COVID-19.
HCQ and its parent compound chloroquine (CQ) have been used for decades against malaria. But the original interest in using HCQ against COVID-19 was generated as a result of studies that indicated CQ had antiviral activity against various viruses including SARS-Cov, a virus related to SARS-Cov-2 which produces COVID-19. More recent studies found that HCQ does indeed have antiviral activity against SARS-Cov-2. Unfortunately, this antiviral activity was evaluated in cultured green monkey kidney (Vero-E6) cells. When HCQ was tested in human airway cells or animal models, no such activity was found. Thus the initial rationale that got scientists interested in using HCQ against COVID-19 has evaporated. If we knew at the start of the pandemic what we now know about HCQ’s lack of antiviral activity against SARS-Cov-2, HCQ would never have been tested against COVID-19. This lack of antiviral activity probably explains why HCQ has not been found to be effective against COVID-19 in the best designed trials (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9).
Nevertheless, HCQ proponents claim that other effects of HCQ such as its anti-inflammatory actions can produce a protective effect against COVID-19. HCQ does indeed have well-documented anti-inflammatory action in diseases such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. However, the onset of this action is slow taking several weeks to months for patients to begin to see improvements, with the full effects taking as much as a year or more. In comparison, the time frame of HCQ treatment in COVID-19 is a couple of weeks at most. And in case you are wondering, studies indicate that patients with lupus or rheumatoid arthritis who were taking HCQ were not protected from COVID-19. There is some evidence that in patients with COVID-19 treated with HCQ there is a faster onset of anti-inflammatory action, but it is not clear why HCQ would be better than other anti-inflammatory agents or why the anti-inflammatory properties of HCQ did not make a difference in the best designed trials.
Zinc and HCQ
Another hypothesis for a possible HCQ action against COVID-19 involves the trace element, zinc. HCQ proponents claim that HCQ taken with zinc is a very effective therapeutic for COVID-19. Zinc has been found to have antiviral action in cell culture because it inhibits the enzyme necessary for the replication of the virus’ genetic material. Additionally, zinc deficiency compromises normal immune function and there is some evidence that zinc deficiency results in a worse COVID-19 outcome. So giving zinc to people with COVID-19 seems like a good idea to correct any zinc deficiency. In fact one of the treatments that the president received when he was infected with COVID-19 was zinc supplements (but not HCQ).
So you may ask, if a COVID-19 patient is receiving zinc, why also coadminister HCQ?
Some HCQ proponents argue that in physiological conditions zinc is a charged molecule that has trouble getting across cell membranes, and HCQ in a cell culture study was found to act like a zinc ionophore. This means it increases zinc uptake into cells. Therefore the claim is that you administer HCQ with zinc to “help” zinc get inside the cells where it can inhibit the virus. In this view, it is zinc that has the antiviral action while HCQ only helps it get into cells. The issue with this notion is that zinc has no problems getting across cell membranes. There are zinc transporters in the membranes of cells that can let zinc in (and out) just fine. In fact, 99.9% of the zinc in the body is inside the cells.
Regardless, HCQ proponents argue that HCQ is necessary to drive the uptake of an excess amount of zinc to produce antiviral effects. In the cell culture study mentioned above (and bearing in mind that these are cell culture results with all of their caveats), a concentration of 10 micromolar HCQ outside the cells increased intracellular zinc slightly above two times the normal amount. Whether this is enough to antagonize viral replication is an open question. However, the majority of the intracellular zinc was targeted to a compartment called a lysosome (which is where HCQ accumulates). The problem is that viral replication takes place elsewhere in the cell (the cytosol). How can zinc trapped in the lysosome affect extralysosomal viral replication? And increasing the HCQ concentration outside the cell to push in more zinc is problematic. In humans, HCQ plasma concentrations greater than 15 micromolar are associated with mortality (reference: download pdf).
An additional complicating factor is that the majority of the zinc both inside and outside the cells is not free. It is bound to proteins. Zinc is used as a signaling molecule by cells and if its levels are allowed to increase in an uncontrolled fashion, they can be toxic. Cells control their internal free zinc levels and try to keep them as low as possible.
I am greatly skeptical about the effectiveness of HCQ against COVID-19, because I consider that the best evidence we have indicates it doesn’t work. I am also skeptical about the zinc story. There are too many questions and a lot of it remains unproven. The effect of zinc alone may be to correct a deficiency as opposed to a pharmacological effect, and HCQ may have no role in the process. But as I have stated before, I want to save lives, not be right. If HCQ alone is found to work against COVID-19 in some specific dose modality or temporal dosing regimen, then that’s great. If zinc combined with HCQ is better than HCQ alone, then that’s great too. But we need well-designed clinical trials to prove this (which excludes observational studies).
In the meantime we will all be best served if we maintain a reasonable level of skepticism. My message to HCQ proponents is: Avoid falling in love with the story.
Heart image by Mozilla used here under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) license was modified from to include the words of hydroxychloroquine and zinc with the heart on a white background.
Over the years I interacted a few times with a fellow researcher I met at meetings. He seemed to be a smart individual, and he was pursuing a line of research that was of interest to me, so I always wanted to know what he was up to and what ideas he had. Then a few years ago I was shocked to find out that the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) had found he had faked images and data which he included in two publications and three grant applications. The university for which the researcher worked did not renew his contract and he lost his job.
Scientists have failings and contradictions like all human beings. There are, of course, individuals with medical conditions that display pathological behavior, but the vast majority of scientists are normal persons who try to be honest. However, there are a certain number of them that under the career crushing pressures to show results for their work will proceed to manipulate or fake data. We will take a look today at some of those individuals.
The most common form of serious fraud in science is the forgery or recycling of data. In the years 2000 and 2001, Jan Schön, a German physicist working at Bell Labs (at the time part of Lucent Technologies) in New Jersey, US, astounded physicists with articles published in the world’s top journals describing the construction and operation of amazing devices such as an organic laser and the world’s smallest transistor. He was hailed a superstar and a genius, and his discoveries promised to usher a revolution in science and get him a Noble Prize. As the hype kept building up, many labs tried to reproduce his work and failed. Eventually, someone discovered that some of the data reported in one article was identical to the data reported in another article, but used in a different context. An internal investigation found he had faked the results for much of his work. Schön lost his job and was stripped of his doctorate. A combination of lax supervision and corporate troubles at Lucent had allowed Schön, who was working alone, free range to perpetrate his forgeries.
Unlike Schön, many dishonest scientists do not work alone, but they still manage to fool those that work with them, which can have serious consequences. Haruko Obokata was a researcher working at the Japanese Riken Center for Developmental Biology who stunned the world when she published research in 2014 indicating that a simple procedure could turn normal cells into pluripotent stem cells: cells that have the capacity to turn into any other cell type in the body. This result had huge implications for the field of restorative medicine, which aimed to replace old or damaged organs in patients with new organs grown in the lab from cells obtained from the same patients. Unfortunately, not only did other researchers fail to reproduce her work, but also someone noticed that some photographs in her research were similar to photographs in research she had previously published. The Riken institute performed an investigation and found that Obokata had falsified her work, and she resigned her position. In the wake of the scandal, one of her coauthors in the articles who was also her supervisor and mentor, Yoshiki Sasai, although cleared of wrongdoing, fell into a depressive state and committed suicide. Another of her coauthors in the articles, the American researcher, Charles Vacanti, famous for growing a cartilage structure in the shape of an ear on the side of a mouse, closed his lab and retired.
The title of the most dishonest scientist was held for a while by the German anesthesiologist Joachim Boldt, who made a name for himself researching substances used to expand the volume of blood during surgery or during pathologies where blood volume is reduced. His research allegedly showed the benefits of some substances over others, and his work was instrumental in their adoption by some doctors. Eventually, people became suspicious as the numbers he reported proved to be too perfect, his results were not reproduced by others, and most of his clinical trials lacked approval by ethics committees. All in all 100 of Boldt’s published articles were found to be fraudulent.
Despite Boldt’s exploits in dishonesty, his record did not last long. Another anesthesiologist, Yoshitaka Fujii, from Japan, made, his career researching treatments for nausea and vomiting after surgery. For two decades he published an uncanny number of studies. Even though concerns regarding his activity were raised several times, nothing ever came of it. Eventually, some skeptical scientists applied statistics to the numbers he reported and found patterns that were highly improbable. This triggered an investigation that found he had published fraudulent data in a whopping 172 of his articles! It has been suggested that he was able to get away with dishonesty for so long because of both the low impact of his research and the culture where he worked.
Some dishonest scientists don’t even bother to make up the data to pretend they performed a study. Craig Grimes, an American researcher from Penn State University, requested grants from the government to conduct research and then used some of the money for personal purposes. He eventually got caught and was sent to jail. And when it comes to publications, some dishonest scientists do not even bother with performing the research and writing it up. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Iraqi researcher Elia Alsabti plagiarized the work of other scientists and published it as if it had been his own. All in all he published close to 60 articles where he removed the name of the original authors and inserted his name and those of fictional coworkers.
There are dozens of cases every year of individuals who get punished for scientific dishonesty. In many cases, coworkers and students spot what they are doing and report them. In other cases, suspicions arise when other scientists can’t reproduce the results or notice irregularities in the data, tables, graphs, or figures. Because of this, most dishonest scientists eventually get caught. Dishonesty in science is something that can only survive if the research that is being faked is of such irrelevant nature that no one is interested in it. This of course begs the question of why anyone is funding this type of research. Unfortunately there are certain institutions that place more emphasis on number of publications instead of the real world impact of the research. However if the research is important, you can be certain that it will be scrutinized and dishonesty will be detected and weeded out. That is the nature of science.
The image by Nick Youngson from Alpha Stock Images is used under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.
The year before graduating from my university, I did an internship in a research laboratory. It was exciting because I got to participate in real research, as opposed to just performing experiments predesigned for students as part of a lab class. The laboratory where I worked was trying to figure out how vitamin A was handled by the body and was performing tracer experiments in rats employing vitamin A labeled with radioactive carbon. Part of the experiment involved passing aqueous samples prepared from the tissues of rats given the radioactive vitamin through a column to separate and collect the different forms of the vitamin in vials and then counting the radioactivity present in the vials. I was sitting at a lab bench handling the vials in front of me when I mishandled one of them which tilted towards me and spread its fluid over the crotch area of my jeans.
I was new to working with radioactivity and was quite alarmed by this incident as well as the anatomical area over which it had occurred, so I made a ruckus. The principal investigator of the lab came over and calmed me down. She asked me about the vial that was spilled, and figured out that it was one that did not contain a lot of radioactive material. Then she told me to go home for the day, change my clothes, and wash my jeans. Next day when I came into the lab, I was told to report to another lab where they would take a blood sample to “make sure I was OK”.
I showed up at the lab and was kept waiting in an office. After a while a somber-looking technician asked me to walk over to the adjacent lab where a group of the graduate and postdoctoral students and investigators in the institute had congregated. Many had smirks on their faces and talked with each other in hushed tones. This should have tipped me off, but I was a newbie who knew nothing of the scientific environment outside the classroom. The technician pulled out a large syringe with an equally large needle and holding it up in the air asked me where the radioactivity had fallen in my body. With a look of apprehension I asked why he needed this information. He proceeded to tell me that he had to draw the blood sample from the anatomical site that had been contaminated!
With eyes wide open I directed a terrified look at the needle and syringe in his hand, and covering my groin with my left hand, I raised my right hand, and shaking a finger at him I yelled, “Noooooo!” while backing away. The room erupted in laughter. The technician couldn’t keep a straight face anymore and started laughing too. I had been pranked!
Many laboratories, research institutes, and universities throughout the world have long traditions of pranks and mischief. These pranks range from sporadic events involving one or more individuals, to well-planned (and sometimes institutionalized) regular practices involving dozens of people. The victims of these pranks are often new arrivals, but sometimes they are perpetrated on members of the general public or even members of other institutions. Let me share a few with you.
The Nobel Prize winning German-British biochemist Hans Krebs had a chattering windup teeth toy which he would use to prank new arrivals to his lab. He would also show them a picture of a goat’s nest with an egg and a baby goat emerging from the egg and swear it was real.
On April fool’s day in 1976, British astronomer Patrick Moore appeared on TV and announced that due to a conjunction of the planets Pluto and Jupiter the Earth’s gravity would be slightly reduced at exactly 9:47 AM, and anyone that jumped at that moment would experience a floating sensation. The TV station was inundated with calls from people who claimed to have experienced just that!
The Nobel Prize winning French physicist Jean Baptiste Perrin was into pranking people. He once hid a spinning gyroscope in a suitcase and placed it in a train station in Paris. A porter saw the seemingly abandoned suitcase and picked it up to store it, but found that the suitcase resisted being turned around. When he dropped it, the suitcase landed and stood up at an odd angle. This made the alarmed porter scream that the devil was inside!
Mathematician Nate Eldredge wrote a program (MATHGEN) to generate professional looking mathematical research articles using complex jargon stitched together in a random fashion. The articles thus generated were nothing but gibberish. He sent one such article under the name of a bogus author to a mathematics journal of dubious reputation, and to his surprise was informed it had been accepted for publication! He had a good laugh and memorialized the event on his website.
The Nobel Prize winning American physicist Richard Feynman who became a celebrity when he demonstrated on live television the reason why the Challenger space shuttle had exploded, also developed a hobby of prying locks and cracking the combinations of safes during the time he worked in the Manhattan Project (which would give the United States its first atomic bomb). As a prank he would break into safes and remove documents containing all kinds of nuclear secrets leaving a note behind stating that he had borrowed such and such a document and signing it “Feynman the Safecracker”.
A biochemistry department of an important university had an award that they would confer to the person who made the most stupid research mistake during the academic year. For example, one of the winners reported that he had succeeded in crystallizing a protein only to find that the "crystals" were nothing but fragments of a broken glass pipette. The award consisted of a plaque from which a naked rear end protruded bearing the name of the awardee over it. The plaque was awarded in a formal ceremony with a lot of pomp and circumstance.
The students of the California Institute of Technology (CALTECH) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are famous for their pranks, some of which have attained legendary status. For example, CALTECH students once modified the famous “HOLLYWOOD” sing in Hollywood, Los Angeles, to read “CALTECH”, and MIT students once buried a large balloon sporting the words “MIT” in the middle of a football field and proceeded to inflate it during a Harvard-Yale game.
So you see, scientists do have a sense of humor, even if it is sometimes at someone’s expense!
The image from pixy#org is used under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) license.