“Hot Wheels” Helena acquired her nickname because, despite being an Advanced Driver who can cadence-brake, control-gear, and turn into skids with the best of them, she used to get about in an ancient
Mini Metro Rover 100—and get me about in it when she was my Genome Campus car-sharing partner.
She’s ruined the (weak) joke now by buying a silver convertible sports car that goes faster than a chav leaving the chemists with a pocket full of Gillette razors, but there was a time when Mini Metro convertibles were considered the sexiest thing a girl could drive, as the opening sequence of the terrible pilot episode of the fortunately-undeveloped Dr Who spin-off K9 and Company shows.
Helena’s is still a scientist however; I’m not, though yesterday she emailed me asking if I could cite an example of a badly-written scientific paper. It wasn’t the answer she was looking for, but the first thing that came to mind was the physicist Alan Sokal’s notorious hoax. This doesn’t count because its badness was deliberate:
In the autumn of 1994, New York University theoretical physicist, Alan Sokal, submitted an essay to Social Text, the leading journal in the field of cultural studies. Entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” it purported to be a scholarly article about the “postmodern” philosophical and political implications of twentieth century physical theories. However, as the author himself later revealed in the journal Lingua Franca, his essay was merely a farrago of deliberately concocted solecisms, howlers and non-sequiturs, stitched together so as to look good and to flatter the ideological preconceptions of the editors. After review by five members of Social Text’s editorial board, Sokal’s parody was accepted for publication as a serious piece of scholarship. It appeared in April 1996, in a special double issue of the journal devoted to rebutting the charge that cultural studies critiques of science tend to be riddled with incompetence.
I have a friend who has edited (and edits) more than one interdisciplinary scientific journal. Just like my mum can glance at West Africans and tell you their tribe, my editor friend has necessarily become expert in identifying sub-species of scientists solely from their appearance. My disparate degrees were spotted like this:
- dresses like he knows how to iron a T-shirt, but doesn’t wear anything to work that might be an expensive loss in a phenol spill; carries books and laptop in rucksack—therefore at some point he probably studied biology, but
- resorts to plastic bag to lug the overflow from his rucksack around; plus he uses Linux and typesets his dead-hard sums in LaTeX—therefore at some point he probably studied physics
Carrying an old plastic bag full of printouts is a very strong signal and, although I am not an expert myself, I’d tentatively suggest that spectacles of the sort worn in this photograph
by Andrew Wiles, the great mathematician, are pretty tightly linked to British mathematical and physical scientists of a long vintage. No one with the slightest concern about fashion would be seen dead in them (unless they were sunglasses or being worn ironically), but they are inexpensive and offer an extensive field of corrected vision.
It’s worth remembering this when examining another physics-related scandal, the Bogdanov affair. In the debate about whether the output of the twin brothers Bogdanov—one with a PhD in mathematics, the other with a PhD in physics—is truly groundbreaking or an elaborate con, no one seems to have asked the obvious question:
Do these men look like serious theoretical physicists, or early 90s MTV Europe VJs?