Image: American “Journal” of Engineering Research
Tom Spears, a science journalist with the Ottawa Citizen, recently wrote an article about the decidedly peculiar “paper” above. This “paper” was recently published in the predatory “journal” American Journal of Engineering Research, and the rest of its content is just as weird as the bit you can read in the image – for more, see Tom’s story here. With thousands of predatory journals publishing anything anyone will pay for, is today the golden age of weird papers? Arulmani and Latha might tempt you to think so, but let’s not pass judgement too fast. Let me tell you about some really weird papers I came across recently.
I happened to be browsing the very first volume of the very first scientific journal, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Why, you ask? I was working on a chapter on coauthorship for my scientific writing book, and I wanted to track down the very first coauthored scientific paper. I found it – and I’ll mention it below – but in browsing I kept being distracted by something else. Scientific papers, at the very dawn of that writing form, hadn’t yet evolved the conventions we’re so familiar with today. As a result, the contents of that first volume (and those that followed) are a fascinating mix of the groundbreaking, the banal, and the bizarre. Some are written as letters, some take the form of essays, some are abstracts or reviews of separately published books, and some are just plain inscrutable. And they have titles to match! Here are a few examples:
An Account of a Very Odd Monstrous Calf – Robert Boyle (Phil Trans 1:10). The calf had deformed legs, a divided tongue, and no obvious significance. Boyle followed this up with Observables upon a Monstrous Head (Phil Trans 1:85-86). He is remembered today as a brilliant chemist and physicist, but his contributions to biology have been largely (and perhaps mercifully) forgotten.
Of an Hungarian Bolus, of the Same Effect with the Bolus Armenus – Anonymous (Phil Trans 1:11). The “bolus” was a clay deposit, which apparently had “good effects in Physic” (medicine, that is, not physics). The paper announces its existence, but says nothing more.
The Character, Lately Published beyond the Seas, of an Eminent Person, not Long Since Dead at Tholouse, Where He Was a Councellor of Parliament – Anonymous (Phil Trans 1:15-16). An obituary for the mathematician Pierre de Fermat; it did eventually get around to naming him.
An Extract of a Letter Containing Some Observations, Made in the Ordering of Silk-Worms, Communicated by That Known Vertuoso, Mr. Dudley Palmer, from the Ingenuous Mr. Edward Digges – Dudley Palmer and Edward Digges (Phil Trans 1:26-27). This is, to my knowledge, the first “coauthored” scientific paper – although really, it’s a letter from Digges explaining how to more easily grow silkworms, and Palmer’s only role was to pass it on to the Royal Society.
A Relation of Persons Killed with Subterraneous Damps – R. Moray (Phil Trans 1:44-45). Moray passes along a description of coal miners suffocated by gases (most likely in this case carbon monoxide and dioxide, although Moray had no idea of the nature of the “damps”).
Some Anatomical Observations of Milk Found in Veins, Instead of Blood; And of Grass, Found in the Wind-Pipes of Some Animals (Phil Trans 1:100-101), and Of a Place in England, Where, without Petrifying Water, Wood is Turned into Stone (Phil Trans 1:101-102) – both Robert Boyle again, although this time he was only passing on (without, apparently, much skepticism) observations sent to him by others.
Some Observations of Odde Constitutions of Bodies – Anonymous (Phil Trans 1:138-139). This is a collection of medical anecdotes, including the story of a girl who, from ages six to thirteen, would fill her pockets with salt and munch on it “as other children doe Sugar”. Sadly, but not surprisingly, “she was so dried up and grown so stiffe that she could not stirre her limbs, and was thereby starved to death”.
And, although I could go on for some time, how better to conclude than with this:
A New Frigorifick Experiment Shewing, How a Considerable Degree of Cold May be Suddenly Produced without the Help of Snow, Ice, Haile, Wind, or Niter, and That at Any Time of the Year – Robert Boyle (again!) (Phil Trans 1:255-261). The word “frigorific”, which Boyle apparently coined for this title, meant “producing cold”, and Boyle’s claim was that simply mixing ammonium chloride into water would cool the solution down. This doesn’t seem to actually be true (saltpetre is frigorific; straight ammonium chloride can keep water liquid below normal freezing point, but isn’t actually frigorific*). But although Boyle’s title is a bit hyperbolic, and he does go on a bit, he describes his experiments quite lucidly, so it’s probably unfair to call this one a weird paper. Whether Boyle was right or wrong, here he was doing modern science.
Boyle’s Frigorifick paper raises an important point: not every paper in the early Philosophical Transactions was weird, even if in a few case it takes a close reading to realize that. The oddities are interspersed with important observations (like those of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot) and descriptions of major advances (like Robert Hooke’s microscopic observations of cells). But the oddities are there by the dozen, and they give the impression of a freewheeling, chaotic, and perhaps somewhat credulous period at the birth of modern science. It was not yet quite clear where the boundaries of science were – where to draw the lines between science and engineering, or architecture, or alchemy, or wild speculation.
What must it have been like to be a scientist in the golden age of weird papers? Well, in some ways it must have been incredibly frustrating. Instruments were primitive, human knowledge was in many fields not that far removed from witchcraft, and so much remained out of the grasp of even the best enquiring minds. But reading these papers, you can also sense the excitement of new worlds opening up with each new discovery. It was a time when you could still make important new discoveries with a hand lens or a simple prism – and when someone like Robert Boyle could work at the forefront of physics, of chemistry, and (if we’re a little bit charitable about the Monstrous Head) of biology too. It might be my own scattered interests, but I can’t help being a little envious of Boyle, who could hop from field to field and be a giant in each.
Just a little envious, mind you. I wouldn’t have liked wearing the wig.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) June 2, 2015
*For more about frigorifics (and yes, I just really wanted an excuse to type that again), see here.