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.
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