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Biology 103
Web Reports 1997
From Serendip

BIOLOGICAL HUMOR: THE INTRICACIES OF SCIENTIFIC JEST
Dena Bodian

Over the course of several years and having had at least 4 good biology teachers, I have been fortunate enough to witness one of the most interesting facets of scientific identity known to humanity: that of the biologist's sense of humor. To further investigate this unusual occurrence, I have performed extensive research on the perpetually up-to-date and data-inclusive World Wide Web. This search has taken me through the annals of scientific humor and other forms of amusement. I have observed a pronounced difference in the types of humor posted by and intended for biologists as opposed to other types of scientists, whose sense of jest I have also studied, and will review in the contents of this paper. I believe that I may have isolated the singular aspect of this odd form of amusement observed only in biologists in captivity (I was unable to observe any such scientists in their natural state)

For biologists, humor lies in the formation of jokes that are completely incomprehensible to anyone unfamiliar with a working knowledge of biology in terminology and concepts, and self-image. Hence, amusement on the part of the biologist emphasizes the ignorance of the lay person and superiority implied by the complexity.

The study of biology requires an intense knowledge of and familiarity with many technical terms to the point where "talking shop" with biologists is almost comparable to learning an entirely new dialect. Therefore, biologists find humor in using this vocabulary to trump up the importance of discussions of ordinary subject matter. In addition, the usage of a highly specialized language allows biologists to maintain the practice of fabricating "inside jokes" which cannot be understood by common people who do not have this field of reference. One instance of this form of complication is found in the song "PI Man" (1), by Gary Firestone. Intended as a spoof on the Billy Joel song "Piano Man", this parody reflects on the difficulties of working in the financially unrewarding field of biology. The chorus is simple, to the point, and can be considered amusing to professionals in many fields who understand the importance of grants:

Get us a grant, you're the PI man. .
Get us a grant today. .
For as much as we love doing research, .
We cannot make do without pay. .

However, this is too easy for a biologist's sense of humor. Thus, the first stanza, in which a simple rhyme scheme is made difficult and incomprehensible for the sole purpose of creating a sense of unity among the select few who can understand it:

Mark in the stockroom's a friend of mine.
He gets me pipets for free. .
And he's quick with a smile, or acetonitrile, .
But there's someplace that he'd rather be.

In the following parody of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" (2), biologists have created a rhyming, metered, and detailed explanation of the process of cellular respiration. Here, the parody itself is responsible for the humor. However, a knowledge of both terminology and concept are needed to fully appreciate the subtleties involved.

The Battle Hymn Of The Aerobes

Mine eyes have seen the glory of respiratory chains
In every mitochondrion, intrinsic to membranes,
Functionally organized in complex sub-domains
Where electrons flow along.
Glory, glory, respiration! (3x)
Where electrons flow along.

Each chain is a mosaic of Complexes I to IV
Embedded in the lipid (which is what the lipid's for)
But that is not sufficient, there are *two* components more
Where electrons flow along.

The first is a small cytochrome that rolls around the place
That's easily extractable from cytoplasmic face
That restored respiration if you just add back a trace,
Where electrons flow along.

The other's a benzoquinone that is ubiquitous,
It floats around the lipid phase with hardly any fuss,
For a mobile pooling function it's become synonymous,
Where electrons flow along.

NADH to CoQ(10)'s the job of complex I,
It contains a single flavin - (and FMN is the one)
And all that non-heme iron can't *just* be there for fun,
Where electrons flow along.

Succinate is oxidized by way of Complex II,
It starts off with FAD and it reduces Q,
And just to make it complex it's got non-heme iron too,
Where electrons flow along.

From CoQ through to ctyo, c requires Complex III,
It's got c(1) and iron too and two species of b,
There's an antimycin-binding site, core-proteins two or three,
Where electrons flow along.

Finally to Complex IV where oxygen's reduced,
Two coppers a and a(3) (which in yeast can be induced),
Find end to the finest chain that Nature has produced,
Where electrons flow along.

Every scientific field has a highly individualistic sense of amusement geared toward that particular area of study. For instance, because computer scientists' work is so specialized, they often find humor in the over-application (no pun intended) of technical skills in everyday life. Here, the humor lies in the attempt of computer scientists to over-complicate everything in day-to-day existence, as in the following excerpts (7).

Your hard drive crashes. You haven't logged in for two hours. You start to twitch. You pick up the phone and manually dial your ISP's access number. You try to hum to communicate with the modem...And you succeed. You refer to going to the bathroom as downloading. Your cat has its own home page. You can't call your mother...she doesn't have a modem. You tell the cab driver you live at "http://1000.edison.garden/house/brick.html."

Another web-site, entitled "You Know You've Been on the Computer Too Long When..." (4) lists instances of computer skills being ridiculously applied in simple ordinary tasks, for example,

when asked about a bus schedule, you wonder if it is 16 or 32 bits....when you are reading a book and look for the space bar to get to the next page...when you look for your car keys using: "grep keys /dev/pockets"...when you get in the elevator and double-press the button for the floor you want...when not only do you check your email more often than your paper mail, but you remember your {network address} faster than your postal one...when you try to sleep, and think ... "telnet xxx.dreams.heaven."

This type of humor works specifically for computer scientists, because their areas of expertise involve a highly specialized technology not applicable to many commonplace occurrences. Biologists find a similar amusement in over-complicating aspects of ordinary existence. However computer scientists seem more capable of laughing at themselves; coined "computer nerds" by the rest of the world, scientists in this field take pride in the fact that, even in real-life situations, their level of function revolves around their work. Computer scientists' ability to laugh at their own faults contrasts drastically with the superiority complex of biologists. Rather than pit the informed against the ignorant, as biological humor does, computer science humor is merely a matter of being informed or uninformed (in which case it is simply not funny). However, this form of jest does not attempt to mock those who are uninformed. Thus, computer science humor is inclusive, while biology humor is exclusive: concerning only the small fraction (another pun not intended) of the population able to understand it and laugh in tandem at the ignorance of the rest of the world.

Similarly, unlike computer scientists whose studies are not always applicable in real-life situations, biologists, who study everyday life, are amused by the over-complications that can arise when they discuss ordinary topics using the specialized vocabulary common to their field. One such web-site invites viewers to join in the fight to "Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide!" (5). The article goes on to describe dihydrogen monoxide as a

colorless, odorless, (and) tasteless (substance which) kills uncounted thousands of people every year...Prolonged exposure to its solid form causes severe tissue damage. Symptoms of DHMO ingestion can include excessive sweating and urination, and possibly a bloated feeling, nausea, vomiting and body electrolyte imbalance. For those who have become dependent, DHMO withdrawal means certain death.

One who is unskilled at the chemical names of elements would not be at all amused. To those who recognized this "lethal" substance by its household name (water or H2O), the idea of knowing an inside language that allows for the double-entendres depicted herein, the description of water as a dangerous substance is amusing. However, it is only the potential for ignorance that allows this web-site to be viewed as amusing. According to one web-site a biologist's sense of humor can best be summed up by the following statement: you might find yourself in a biological field if you "find humor in other people's stupidity." (3)

Unlike biologists, psychiatrists and psychologists enjoy mocking the profession itself. The following jokes (6)manage to poke fun at both the patients (like many "shrink" jokes) and the doctors themselves:

How do you tell the difference between the staff and the inmates at a psychiatric hospital?

* * * The patients get better and leave.

Neurotics build castles in the sky.
Psychotics live in them.
Psychiatrists collect the rent.

Biologists make jokes that are only funny to insiders in an attempt to heighten their own self-importance, a striking contrast to the psychological field which, secure in its importance, enjoys a greater sense of self-deprecating humor. Additionally, these jokes differ from those of a biological nature in their usage of idea play, or conceptual puns, which makes the jokes more accessible to the general public, in contrast to biologists' need for complex terms and arcane concepts.

Unlike biologists, whose humor requires an understanding of specific terminology, in physics, the usage of common words with mathematical connotations often leads to an appreciation for puns, like the following samples from "Party of Famous Physicists." (9)

Everyone gravitated toward Newton, but he just kept moving around at a constant velocity and showed no reaction...Einstein thought it was a relatively good time... Coulomb got a real charge out of the whole thing...Cauchy, being the only mathematician there, still managed to integrate well with everyone...Ohm spent most of the time resisting Ampere's opinions on current events...Hilbert was pretty spaced out for most of the evening...Hollerith liked the hole idea...Compton was a little scatter-brained at times...Bohr ate too much and got atomic ache. ..Watt turned out to be a powerful speaker...Oppenheimer got bombed.

The physicists were also the scientific group with the highest proclivity toward strange inventions. They seem to enjoy inventing improbable situations like the following (8):

As it happens, the terminal velocity of a reindeer in dry December air over the Northern Hemisphere (for example) is known with tremendous precision. The mass of Santa and his sleigh (since the number of children and their gifts is also known precisely, ahead of time, and the reindeer must weigh in minutes before the flight) is also known with tremendous precision. His direction of flight is, as you say, essentially east to west.

All of that...means that the momentum vector of Mr Claus and his cargo is known with incredible precision. An elementary application of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle yields the result that Santa's location, at any given moment on Christmas Eve, is highly imprecise. In other words, he is "smeared out" over the surface of the earth, analogous to the manner in which an electron is "smeared out" within a certain distance from the nucleus in an atom. Thus he can, quite literally, be everywhere at any given moment.

Because physicists deal with topics such as reality and chaos, it seems natural for jokes appreciated in this field to discuss these issues. In biology, extremes are very dangerous and homeostasis is a life or death situation. Physicists are more apt to play with hypothetical situations as mental exercises because they cannot exist. Additionally, biology is a science in which there is a constant discovery of new organisms. Hypothetical creations can be viewed as those which merely have yet to be identified, and are therefore not focused upon as heavily as in other sciences, where the line between what is real and unreal is blurred.

Additionally, biologists seem not to mock the subjects of their studies, another big difference between biology jokes and those of other sciences:

This page will hopefully provide fun and enjoyment as it brings you the best in humor for and about Psychologists, Psychiatrists, other therapists, and their clients and subjects (oops, I mean "participants").

As is seen in this quote from a web page devoted to jokes about the psychological field (6), psychologists often poked fun at their patients. Similarly, physicists laugh at their principles, and computer scientists at their obsession and subsequent inability to function in the real world. Biologists, on the other hand, did none of these, preferring instead to take enjoyment in the intricacies of their field and the lay person's inability to comprehend it. Their humor results in others' ignorance, and in their sheer delight of being able to use their extensive knowledge of in-depth concepts and terminology to complicate ordinary life into a closer representation to what is actually studied in biology. The ability of biologists to transform technical know-how into a form of jest requires a unique sense of comprehension of the workings of the world, as well as a twisted sense of humor. The amusement sought by biologists involves the artistry of the usage of complexity to imply the intellectual superiority of those who comprehend this form of jest.

World Wide Web Resources

1) The PI Man

2) The Battle Hymn of the Aerobes

3) You might be an emergency room doctor/nurse if ...

4) You know you've been on the computer too long when ...

5) Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide

6) Psychology Humor Page

7) You know you're an email junkie if ...

8) Quantum Mechanics Saves Santa

9) A Party of Famous Physicists




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