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There is no place for humor in science
May 2009
by Peter T. Kissinger  | 
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A decade ago, I was given the above instruction by British colleagues in response to an advertisement of my company's products that used humor to attract attention. In a print ad, you have three seconds to accomplish this objective. I suspect it is half that time for a banner ad on the Internet. The Brits are a curious group with their stiff upper lips and their creation of the likes of Monty Python, Benny Hill and Mr. Bean. There will always be some on each end of any bell curve. Fully assembled, we are blessed with a very brief time on this planet, although I gain satisfaction in knowing that my constituent atoms have been living much longer and will represent me well into the future, whatever future assemblage they may join—perhaps a tree, a colorful butterfly or a spacecraft taking my aluminum atoms on an intergalactic adventure. 

In these difficult times (and in my experience all times are difficult), I find humor to be good medicine and one I can surely afford. I began my career as a chemistry professor by noting in a required biographical sketch that I was disinclined to disclose that I had been a Fine Fellow at Kansas University. I forgot the matter until a few years later, when in the introduction to one of my lectures, it was noted that I had held the Fine Fellowship as a postdoctoral scientist. I thanked my host for his introduction and proceeded with a discussion of neurotransmitters—before neurotransmitters were "cool."

That evening, beer in hand, the subject came up once more, and I followed the rule of "Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive," noting that the fellowship was sponsored by the family of Lawrence Fine, an alumnus of Kansas University. I knew this was getting out of hand, but we had just gone through Watergate with Richard Nixon and all sorts of famous people were also making things up. Besides, I didn't have tenure yet and could get in serious trouble. 

I did suffer some guilt from this the next day after the beer wore off and admitted that Larry Fine was 33.33 percent of the Three Stooges and I had made the whole thing up.

As far as Google can tell, Larry Fine (originally Louis Feinberg) did not attend Kansas University or even make a donation to KU. He apparently had a very difficult time holding on to money, and was given to gambling and carousing. He was born on the corner, perhaps literally, of 3rd and South Streets in Philadelphia, where today you can see a mural of the man over Jon's Bar and Grill. This was the reason I attended the recent American Chemical Society (ACS) meeting in Philadelphia and look forward to this year's conference of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry (ASMS), a group of very funny people.

Science has long facilitated humor, if humor has not returned the favor. The Three Stooges relied on Ben Franklin's experiments with electricity, Faraday's discovery of electromagnetic induction, George Eastman's work with photographic film and Tom Edison's notions of motion pictures. Ultimately they made it to television, and it is unclear who definitively invented that. Were such a person alive today, I would send him to Guantanamo Bay prison before it closes, because commercial television is to the brain as termites are to wood, a clear violation of the FDA's notions of safe and effective.

It will soon be 40 years since I was granted a Ph.D., and I've never detected that scientists didn't have as much fun as any other evolving species. From graduate students to Nobel Prize winners, there is plenty of humor in science, and that's one way we get through the fact that most experiments do not work as expected. These days, we also reserve some humor for management as they serially reorganize and invoke six sigma. What they do doesn't work very often, either. When it does, good planning is invoked, but I suspect luck is really in play.

In February, we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin and Lincoln on the same day. There is a connection in that Lincoln was considered a monkey by some in the press (a problem then as now, DDN excepted), and Origin of the Species was published in 1859 as Lincoln was campaigning. I wish all our readers well during this economic hiccup. Hang tough, have fun and we'll get through this before you know it.

Peter Kissinger is chairman emeritus of BASi, CEO of Prosolia in Indianapolis and a professor of chemistry at Purdue University.

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