The Science Of Funny

Do scientists have a sense of humor? Just ask the guys who named an ample-bottomed beetle Scaptia beyonceae.

AsianScientist (Oct. 20, 2016) – Science is a serious affair. As scientists, we question, we observe, we measure, we record, we report and we question some more. It must be, then, that scientists are serious people, right?

But everyone has a humerus.

Contrary to popular belief, scientists do enjoy a good laugh more than once in a while. We make puns on our jargon, gags about our protocols and jokes of our experiment data (insert bitter laughter here).

Admittedly, one must first understand the scientific context before one can fully appreciate the punch line. Perhaps this is why we scientists often start explaining our humor. Things quickly get awkward after that. Yet, another quality of scientists is resilience, and in this spirit, here are some case studies of the times when scientists exercised their humorous.

1. What’s in a name?

There is a branch of science that specializes in the classification and naming of all things: taxonomy. When it comes to the naming of species, some basic rules apply. Essentially, each species will have two parts to its name in Latin grammatical form. For example, humans are called Homo sapiens, which is Latin for “wise person.”

Some may argue that this is a misnomer, but to give credit where its due, taxonomists have been much more accurate in the naming of some other organisms. Observe their handiwork in the christening of a beetle with a remarkable behind: Scaptia beyonceae.

Irony is not lost on taxonomists either; a family of snails goes by the first name (genus), Turbo. Then there are some names that are just downright rude when read aloud, like Pison eu, the Central American wasp. Click here for more curious names of species.

2. The N.S.E.W. blots

If you misread the above as N.S.F.W., as in ‘not safe for work,’ you must have a guilty conscience. Indiscretions aside, you might have noticed that the three key molecules in biology each have a blot, and strangely enough, they’re named after three cardinal directions. The Southern blot is for probing of DNA, the northern blot for RNA and the western blot for protein.

Basically, in 1975, Sir Edward Mellor Southern found a way to detect specific sequences of DNA from a mixture of DNA fragments that had been separated by size with an electric current. Sir Edward Southern called his method the Southern blot.

Then, in 1977, James Alwine adapted the principles of the Southern blot for the detection of specific RNA sequences. Paying homage to the Southern blot, Alwine called his method the northern blot.

Finally, when Neal Burnette and colleagues designed a blot for detecting specific proteins, he named it the western blot, so called because the other two directions had been taken, but also because the lab he worked in was located at the west coast of North America. Behold, here we have a joke played across time and geography! But do take note when writing your manuscripts, that only the Southern blot ought to be capitalized (as has been done in this article). NEXT PAGE >>>

Jeremy received his PhD from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where he studied the role of the tumor microenvironment in cancer progression.

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