Breaking Down Science, Step by Step

Every Christmas, the British Medical Journal publishes humorous scientific papers to bring some holiday cheer to their readers. So allow me to show you what science looks like with its hair down. Here are my top ten joke scientific articles from the BMJ.

10. Head and Neck Injuries in Heavy Metal: Stuck between Rock and a Hard Bass

Sometimes, you can fall in love with an article just from the title alone. The authors of this article conducted an "Observational Study" which involved them going to various heavy metal concerts, noting the various headbanging techniques, building a mathematical model based on those movements to understand the kind of stresses headbanging induces. I now know why I felt slightly dizzy after headbanging too hard at metal concerts.


There is a really silly error in one of their figures, but apart from that it's a pretty cool paper, with an even cooler title. Look out for celebrity cameos in the discussion section.

9. Beauty Sleep:experimental study on the perceived health and attractiveness of sleep deprived people

Untrained observers were shown pictures of people whom were sleep deprived, and asked to rate their attractiveness. It's pretty straightforward for a paper of this type. Tired people look tired, and are less attractive. Who knew ?

8. The Survival time of chocolates on wards.

The study is simple. Boxes of chocolates were placed on wards, and observers covertly noted how long it took for those chocolates to be noticed, and how long it took for the chocolates to be finished, and who was eating all of the chocolates. The answer probably won't surprise you, but it's one of those experiments that you can do at home.


7. How fast does the Grim Reaper walk ?

Full disclosure, I hate slow walkers, I hate them with a passion. So when a group of researchers found that slow walkers tend to have a shorter life expectancy, it already plays to my prejudices. But that isn't why this article is great. What makes it magnificent is how they use this piece of information to extrapolate the walking speed of the Grim Reaper.


6. Harry Potter casts a spell on accident prone children

One the day Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out, I embarked on a "Book crawl" with my friends. The concept was simple, go to a book store, read a chapter of a book, then go to a pub to discuss the chapter and drink. Rinse and repeat until we either finish the book or pass out. We didn't finish the book that day.


Fortunately, I knew I'd be safe because I had misinterpreted the findings of the above paper, which showed that Harry Potter fans were less likely to have accidents on the release dates of their favorite book. If I had read it properly, I would have realized the reason was not so much a magical spell that would render me immune from running into walls and traffic, but because normal people stay in to read books.

5. Tokelau on Naboo

Tokelau is a skin disease caused by a fungus, which produces very distinctive lesion patterns on the the skins of its victims. One researcher was shocked to see that one of the key characters from the Phantom Menace suffered from this disease.


If you want to guess who it is, just think to yourself... which Star Wars character would I most want to suffer from a painful skin infection ?

4. A series of unfortunate events ? Morbidity and Mortality in a town in Borsetshire


"The Archers" is the longest running radio soap opera in the world. It revolves around the residents of a fictional town called "Ambridge". After listening to their adventures for the last twenty years, researchers have finally published what they've learned about it.

The town's average death rate is slightly lower than the average for the UK, but the actual causes of death are somewhat interesting. Citizens of Ambridge are more susceptible to accidental death, but oddly free of cancer. Nevertheless, it seems that "The Archers" hews a lot nearer to reality than you would suspect. My only criticism is that all of this data is anecdotal.


3. The case of the disappearing teaspoons

In nearly every shared house I've been in, one thing has been constant. The teaspoons always go missing. Whereas I only resorted to stern post-it notes, researchers at the Macfarlane Burnet Institute took it further. Way further. They published an entire scientific paper about their colleagues lack of teaspoon discipline.


As a pilot study, they marked out specific teaspoons with red nail polish, and planted them in tea rooms across campus. This was how they worked out where the "High Risk" areas for tea spoons were, where they vanished from the most quickly. Based on this, they distributed teaspoons to all of the tea rooms, and tracked how quickly they disappeared.

I'm not going to spoil their results, but this paper is fantastic. Who knows, you might be tempted to replicate their work after you read it.


2. The Case of E.T.

Extraterrestrial medicine is a discipline still in its infancy. A group of medical professionals bravely attempt to diagnose E.T's problems upon earth, lay down judgments on the people who attempted to "treat" E.T. the first time around, and set out some basic guidelines for further interactions with his species.


1. A precious case from Middle Earth

Sméagol (Gollum) is a single, 587 year old, hobbit-like male of no fixed abode. He has presented with antisocial behaviour, increasing aggression, and preoccupation with the "one ring."


To say that Smeagol has a few mental issues is like saying a kicked in hive has a few angry bees. What are those psychological issues ? Was it just his exposure to the ring that caused them, or was it just the trigger for issues that were already present, and has his lifestyle since acquiring the ring exacerbated his problems ? To find out more, read this paper !


What the BMJ shows us is how the tools of science can be used (or even misused) in various situations where we wouldn't consider its application. The diagnosis of the physical problems of fictional characters highlights the absurdity that can occur when attempting to diagnose the ailments of historical figures based on documents alone. The Grim Reapers pace shows us how we can take perfectly good data, and use it to back an entirely specious conclusion. Like any great parody, these papers can hold up a skewed mirror to science.


Then there are the studies that use science in places we would never have even thought to before, to ask questions that no-one thinks are particularly important. Simply for the joy of working out where the teaspoons have gone, or who is eating all the chocolate.

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