The Golden Age of Weird Papers

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.

phil trans 1I 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.

(c) Wellcome Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Wellcome Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

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 (sheard@unb.ca) June 2, 2015


 *For more about frigorifics (and yes, I just really wanted an excuse to type that again), see here.

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19 thoughts on “The Golden Age of Weird Papers

  1. Jeremy Fox

    So which, if any, of these papers was seen as weird *at the time*?

    These papers are from an interesting period of intellectual history. The 17th century has thinkers who are recognizably modern in some respects–think Newton, Boyle, etc. But who are basically medieval in other respects. And here’s the thing–they didn’t see any tension between their modern and medieval ideas. To Newton, his “medieval” alchemical work was very much of a piece with his “modern” physics. So much as I share the reaction that these papers are weird (and I do!), or in some cases a weird intermingling of weirdness and insight, that just shows that at some level we don’t understand the world view of 17th century natural philosophers.

    In some ways, I think they’re harder for us to understand–or easier for us to misunderstand–than someone like, say, Aristotle. With someone as obviously different from us as Aristotle, we never forget that he’s different. We don’t hone in on one aspect of his thought to the exclusion of other aspects, and we don’t fool ourselves into thinking we understand him better than we do. But because someone like Newton or Boyle had some very modern-sounding ideas, there’s a strong temptation to just ignore or dismiss other aspects of their thought, and to fool ourselves into thinking that we can understand the modern-sounding bits better than we do.

    You’ve probably read An Instance of the Fingerpost? If you haven’t, you need to drop whatever you’re doing and go read it, it’s totally up your alley.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Jeremy – yeah, your first paragraph was what I was trying to get at with my comments on this freewheeling time when science sort of hadn’t “gelled” yet. I think you are right, none of these would have been seen as “weird” at the time.

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  2. Jeremy Fox

    Re: one person being at the forefront of every field of human knowledge, any opinions on who was the last person to pretty much know everything that was known at the time? I’d probably say Leibniz. I’ve heard people stump for someone as recent as JBS Haldane, but I think that’s way off base. As far as I know, Haldane was nowhere close to being conversant with the most advanced mathematics of his day (number theory, etc.).

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Leibnitz seems plausible, except that he wouldn’t have known what Newton knew, since they didn’t play well together! I agree, Haldane is way off base. I think it’s the late 1600s or early 1700s we’re in. Any other commenters have a suggestion?

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      1. Jeremy Fox

        Well, Leibniz independently figured out what Newton knew. And yeah, I think it’s pretty hard to argue for anyone after the late 17th or early 18th century. But I’m hardly an expert so I could well be wrong.

        Second question, to which I don’t know the answer: which field of science peeled off from the others first after the late 17th century? So that, to remain at the leading edge of that field, you had to specialize on that field to some extent? So that, at some point shortly after Leibniz/Boyle/Newton et al., you had “people who are somewhat specialized in field X” and “people who know a lot about all fields except field X”. I’m guessing mathematics? Or maybe chemistry? Or did all fields kind of peel away from the others at the same rate, so that you started having proto-mathematicians, proto-chemists, proto-physicists, and proto-biologists all appearing around the same time?

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  3. Manu Saunders

    Wonderful post Stephen, thank you! Browsing through those old journals is more entertaining than watching TV! 🙂
    In response to Jeremy’s question, I think the rise of ‘mechanics’ (via Copernicus) was really the forerunner of specialisations – before that, ‘science’ was about knowledge of the natural world and phenomena. Most scientists had broad knowledge of most things and are known for variations on a theme. Then the development of mechanical philosophy during the Enlightenment built on that (helped along by the industrial revolution), giving scientists the tools to specialise in particular areas. And the Academies too…I think it was Peter the Great who said that the purpose of Academies was to enable gatherings of scientists so they could educate each other by showing how their specialities ‘worked’.

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  8. Elizabeth Moon

    Another factor leading to more specialization to consider beyond the expansion of knowledge: economics. Science needs intelligence, without regard to a person’s social/economic class, and the economic potential of scientific advances became evident as engineering (in the 17th & 18th c.) made economic progress. As did the science that supported it. Both from the perspective of a highly intelligent person who needs to earn a living, and that person’s potential employer, specialization in a field (already familiar from earlier times) makes sense. You make yourself a master in a given area, and find an employer who wants that expertise. Smiths had done this in metallurgy, by trial and error; so had those in many crafts. A familiar model is always easier to teach and spread than an unfamiliar one.

    Once someone specializes (and is supporting themselves with it) it’s hard to find the time to become a generalist–the generalist model of education, after all, was meant for those who did not have to earn a living (going all the way back to the original concept of a liberal education–the education of a free man, someone who was wealthy enough to spend hours a day in study.) Some individuals become narrow by choice (they found the one thing they’re passionate about and want to do) but many more become narrow by necessity, with their other interests relegated to hobbies (and often cut off by that from intercourse with the best minds in that field. Who wants to work with someone who can spend only two hours a week in their field?) The more that governments and industries saw the potential economic gains from science, the more they wanted to hire people who would keep their noses to the grindstone, concentrate on what was important to the employer.

    You see this today in the funding for areas of science deemed of use to society (or potentially profitable, or both) v. the funding of “pure” science, where the practical applications are thought to be far in the future if they exist at all. Yes, non-immediate-impact science is funded, but that funding is constantly under attack by the pragmatists who demand to know what it’s for, and whether it produces anything to justify its costs. We do not know how much a modern person *could* know about a wide range of things at once (and thus what useful connections might be made) because telling a grant-giving agency or a university that you just want to learn everything you can about everything and see how much knowledge you can accumulate…doesn’t put food on the table. I’m not saying any one person could encompass all of science at the cutting edge–but I think there’s unused potential for the brightest individuals who already have a generalist mindset to go a lot farther than is now realized.

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