Frank Thone of the Science Service goes "Pbbbbbbllllttt!


The magical world of Science is protected by a high and intimidating wall: the common perception that Science is dry and boring.  This is perhaps just as well; if Science were more accessible, there'd be riff-raff everywhere, and then the true faithful would have to go be lawyers or military history experts or something.
In an effort to better understand this prickly hedge scientists grow to protect their turf from the encroaching stinking hoards of laypeople, I did a bit of browsing through some prepress scientific publications to see what academia is preparing for today's avid reader-scientist.  Would I find an impenetrable fortress of intelligence: grey, lifeless, forbidding, shutting out any seeking soul that ventured to tap at its heavy iron portals? Or an enchanted kingdom filled with sugerplums of intellect, crystal waterfalls of inspiration, and dancing unicorns of twee enthusiasm?  The suspense was killing me, as I'm sure it is you.


I began by generating a list of current preprint academic papers from the online archive, operated by Cornell University.  I searched for current articles in the fields of astronomy, biology, computer science, mathematics, physics, and statistics using a single query parameter. The search can be found here, but the results it yields will change as new papers are submitted to the archive.  

I then rated the 100 articles on a boringness scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being Dear God Are You Kidding Me Whyyy and 5 being Huzzah, That Sounds Wicked!  To judge the boringness of each title, I considered whether it gripped me personally, not whether I thought it might appeal to anyone else.  

I used the information from this one-person survey to create a couple of charts analyzing the boringness and comparing the individual disciplines. I did this all in a couple of hours.  I was a little sleepy by the end.


Overall, I was suprised by how many ratings of 1 or 2 I was forced to give out. I generally enjoy science-y things, but this month's crop looks bleak.  As shown in Figure 1, I was at least mildly bored with over half the titles on offer.  Most papers did not sound excruciatingly dull, but there were only a handful that really drew me in. In all that writing, it seemed like there was very little to write home about.
Figure 1. Reaction to titles of all 100 science papers.

When the results were separated by general discipline, some patterns began to emerge.  All the titles I judged to be particularly engaging were written by astronomers; in fact, I could easily see myself reading half of their articles.  (Nice work, space nerds!)  In contrast, nearly all of the ones that sounded like poop on toast were the efforts of mathematicians.

Figure 2. Reaction to titles of science papers by discipline.
Most life-drainingly fetid-sounding article: It was a tight race, but "Equivariant Algebraic Cobordism" by Jeremiah Heller and Jose Malagon-Lopez won out over Andrew Snowden's "Syzygies of Segre embeddings" only because syzygies is kind of a cool word. I suspect it also closely resembles the sound that most people make after reading the first page, just before they stab themselves to death.

Thrilling piece of wheeee: Hands down, the most interesting-sounding article was Emilio Santos's "Dark energy as a curvature of space-time induced by quantum vacuum fluctuation." Dark energy! Space-time! Quantum vacuums! This puppy has already been accepted for publication in Astrophysics and Space Science, and I'm not suprised because I fully expect to hear that it's being made into a miniseries any day now.  Read all 27 pages of awesome here! (Full disclosure: I opened it and there were a lot of equations that didn't really speak to me, so I am putting it on hold until after I finish my degree in astrophysics.)

Funniest title if you are twelve: Step aside, Hanyuan Deng's "Wiener Indices of Spiro and Polyphenyl Hexagonal Chains," you're playing in the big leagues now. Giggling schoolkids, I give you V. N. Zhelyabin's magnum opus, "The Kantor-Koecher-Tits Construction for Jordan Coalgebras."  Tee hee.  Koecher-Tits.

Funniest title if you are high: A mercifully few scientists attempted to spice things up with a few side-splitting bon mots. Antonio Padilla gave it his best shot with "The good, the bad and the ugly .... of Horava gravity," Allison Henrich and a host of her friends came up with "A Midsummer Knot's Dream,"  but the wackiest wordplay in the west belongs to Anais "Class Clown" Smailagic and Euro "Crackerdoodle" Spallucci with their phunny physics pheature "'Kerrr' black hole: the Lord of the String."

Paper that I'm actually going to read for realsies because it turns out that dark energy one was a little dry after all: I actually got pretty absorbed in "Fatigue evaluation in maintenance and assembly operations by digital human simulation" by Liang Ma, Damien Chablat, Fouad Bennis, Wei Zhang, Bo Hu, and François Guillaume.  I only rated the title as a 4, but I accidentally clicked the link and was transported into a wondrous world wherein Ma et al. explain a theoretical approach for making their drill-wielding virtual people get a bit drained after operating their drills all the damn day.  I am now a big fan, and you will be too.


I have too much respect for you and for Science to pretend that there is anything of import to be drawn from all this. On a personal level, I confirmed to myself that I like space more than math, which wasn't really much of a shock. These titles also suggest to me that the average paper writer was not particularly concerned about appealing to the masses, or indeed to people who are not made of wood.

I'm not sure why this should be.  Naturally, these articles are written primarily to convey knowledge to the larger community, to boost the writer's personal profile and that of his or her organization or academic institution, and to plant a flag in something before everybody else arrives.  But do they have to sound so horrifyingly dull?

Photo of Dr. Thone was taken from Smithsonian Institution Archives (Acc. 90-105 – Science Service, Records, 1920s-1970s)