Unintentional entertainment in scientific writing

Save for the occasional pun in the title, scientific papers seldom contain intentional humour. But there’s entertainment to be had if you have the right mindset. Let me show you.

Relatability can be the basis of a good laugh. And as a scientist who routinely uses time series data, I can relate to the struggle of unwanted gaps in a dataset. So I was entertained when I came across the following sentence:

No data are available for 1991 and 1992 because the volcanic eruption of Mt Pinatubo in 1991 contaminated the signal. (ref)

Why, exactly, am I entertained, you ask? Partly, it’s the notion of a very expensive satellite being thwarted by a bit of ash. More so, it’s that the sentence is the epitome of scientific writing. A freakin’ volcanic eruption messes up two years worth of data, and yet it’s described in the same matter-of-fact tone as the other technical details like the satellite’s pixel resolution. Good luck finding any other types of writers who recount a long-lived effect of a natural disaster in a single sentence.

Before we move on, let me clarify that my entertainment from the quotes in this post are not at the author’s expense. Despite my amusement at the sometimes-absurd practices we abide by in scientific writing, I would have penned the quoted sentence above in the same plain manner. (Okay, in a few cases below—those with the references omitted—my entertainment is at the author’s expense.)

No biggie

That first example is but one of many where scientists act as if nothing phases them. Here’s a few more with an almost-comical lack of embellishment:

Approximately 160,000 computational hours on a 256 core supercomputer are used to complete the simulation. (ref)

160,000 computational hours—equivalent to one core running for 18 years—and not even an exclamation mark? Perhaps it’s not so bad since the computer is doing all the work. Not like the following:

A large and impressive amount of work (about 20 man-years) has been spent to evaluate the transfer integral for various model spectra. (ref)

At least they recognise the 20 man–years for the impressive feat that it is. Still, distilling those two decades of work on one particular integral to little more than a parenthetical is scientific writing in a nutshell.

Whenever a lot of work goes into a scientific study, it’s satisfying when everything finally works. Of course, we don’t celebrate by writing something like “It worked! It finally worked! I can’t believe it worked!” Instead, it comes out a bit more formally:

The fact that the model is stable and that we are able to simulate tabular icebergs moving in the ocean without the model crashing and introducing artificial effects like tsunamis is a nontrivial technical milestone. (ref)

Tsunamis, you say? Seems like there’s a good backstory they wanna tell.

Let’s not get carried away

There’s one big flaw with my statement that we scientists act as if nothing is a big deal: we also all write as if our own studies are of the utmost importance. There’s an entertaining irony when people take this too far. For example, the paper that opens with this:

The topic is of paramount importance.

Yes, this assertion is the first six words of the abstract! It makes me question—à la Inigo Montoya—their definition of “paramount importance”.

A less vague, but equally bold declaration:

Our results should provide direction for future theoretical, numerical, and laboratory investigations.

Theoretical, numerical, and laboratory. So, pretty much everything, then?

You don’t say

Aim for brevity in scientific writing. Keep it short and sweet. Avoid redundancy. Or, for the amusement of your reader, stick in some blatant tautology as is done in the following statement (paraphrased for clarity):

There were two large-amplitude events measured on September 28 and 29, 2012 (hereafter referred to as September 28 and September 29).

Just as obvious:

…, whereas breathing is necessary for life and is performed continuously.

I think it’s safe to assume the reader knows of this necessity.

For lack of a better word

Science writing is hard. It often helps to get words on the page. You can always go back and do the wordsmithing later. Or not:

For lack of a suitable word, let us call it θ2-stuff. (ref)

Or pick an existing word, but then make your reader question exactly what you mean:

The random selection was done by choosing, ‘randomly’, journal issues off the book shelf and then ‘randomly’ pinpointing an article in the table of contents. (ref)

I know the quotation marks are an acknowledgement than their random isn’t truly random, but I can’t read the sentence without picturing Dr Evil.

Sometimes, scientific jargon can be entertaining on its own. Especially when it sounds like it’s been written for Randall Monroe’s Thing Explainer:

… the subtle image distortion associated with the look-angle of the imager. (ref)

“Look-angle of the imager” is an accurate phrase and yet sounds like nonsense at the same time.

Maybe this is all a good reason to drop the formality in scientific writing. Here’s a start:

We cannot all be as cool as Color Brewer. (ref)

Careful with the formatting

Sometimes formatting gaffes are inherently entertaining. One example is a paper with Figure 1 upside down. Which you would think is a glaring mistake. And yet it almost doesn’t matter (kinda like this comic) since their temperature profiles in the ocean and atmosphere were close to rotationally symmetric.

The paper is from the 60s, so I’m envisaging a literal cut and paste error is to blame. Since it’s probably no-one’s job to fix, the mistake lives on in the online version.

A much newer, albeit less glaring, formatting flaw I came across was as follows:

Note that systematic errors may be as large as a factor of 239. (ref)

Admittedly, it was reasonably clear that the superscript 39 was a citation, not an exponent. But it’s more entertaining to read it as if the authors are conceding systematic errors as large as factor of 239≈ 500 billion.

Let’s be practical here

Randall Monroe deserves another reference here. This time for his Purity comic. The gist is that mathematicians can feel pretty smug about the purity of their field. In my field of physical oceanography, this smugness is occasionally mocked in eloquent, but not-so-subtle language:

This is distasteful from a theoretical point of view but is not necessarily of any practical consequence. (ref)

For turbulence purists, no shortcuts that impinge on the integrity of physical processes, which are rich enough to defy a thorough understanding, are tolerable. (ref)

These jabs at the theorists go back more than 100 years:

If it were necessary for the engineer to await the pleasure of the pure mathematician in these matters, the subject would have made scarcely perceptible progress since the time of Noah. – Lanchester (1915) cited in a 2007 article.

Let’s be honest here as well

“Left as an exercise to the reader” is infamous phrase in the world of textbooks. It sounds friendly enough, but the phrase seems to crop up for only the toughest problems. Hence, it’s a refreshing change when a textbook is honest about how tedious the problem really is:

After a half hour or so of differentiating, you should find that this solution works … (ref)

Scientific writing: not exactly laugh out loud

I said at the start that you need the right mindset to get entertainment out of scientific writing. That mindset is to have low expectations. Even then, I’m guessing my examples didn’t make you laugh out loud. I’ll be happy with a smirk or some extra nose exhalation.

Author: Ken Hughes

Post-doctoral research scientist in physical oceanography

4 thoughts on “Unintentional entertainment in scientific writing”

  1. Ken, Nice blog! You may find the origin of the Hoenikker number in physical oceanography humorous. This non-dimensional number was introduced by Chris Garrett (in a couple of Li and Garrett articles on Langmuir cells, and others have used it since then) e.g. Li and Garrett 1995 JPO. There is very interesting tongue-in-cheek humor there and a connection to Cat’s Cradle. I don’t know if that is the only non-dimensional number named after a fictional character from a famous novel! In addition, the titles of some of Chris’s papers are enjoyable for their puns and brevity e.g. Marginal Mixing Theories (1991), Sea level flips (1993), On Cross Waves (JFM 1970), Bottomless Harbours (JFM 1970), Tides in gulfs (1975)…

    1. Hadn’t come across that one about the Hoenikker number. I’ll check it out. And I agree that Chris’s work is full of clever little jokes

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