Several years ago I gave a radio talk entitled Humour in Science (http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/ockhamsrazor/1-april-2012/3919790). My idea was to illustrate Isaac Asimov’s famous dictum – The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny …’ – by producing instances where jokes and spoof comments have stimulated genuine scientific discovery.
The talk met with mixed reactions. Perhaps some people just wanted to hear about the jokes and the hoaxes, without the serious message. So here, for them, is what I believe is one of the best and funniest scientific hoaxes of all time. Let the author introduce its basic premise for himself:
DURING the past two years I have had to spend periods of several weeks on a remote island in comparative isolation. In these conditions I noticed that my beard growth diminished, but the day before I was due to leave the island it increased again, to reach unusually high rates during the first day or two on the mainland. Intrigued by these initial observations, I have carried out a more detailed study and have come to the conclusion that the stimulus for increased beard growth is related to the resumption of sexual activity.
The anonymous author published his “results” in the prestigious scientific journal Nature – not on April 1st, which might have given the game away, but on May 30, 1970. With a straight face, he described his ongoing experiments, which involved carefully shaving with an electric razor each morning for two years and weighing the hairs, simultaneously recording his sexual activity over the previous 24 hours. You can read the whole article here: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v226/n5248/pdf/226869a0.pdf.
It’s funny because it’s so believable. But of course it’s a hoax.
Or is it? Perhaps it is time for a social experiment. Any volunteers?