The Science Askew Companion
by Donald E. SimanekUpdated 5 Jan 2002 and Aug 2012.
Science Askew, a collection of science humor by Donald Simanek and illustrated by John Holden, is published by Taylor and Francis, a division of CRC press. See Science Askew for a description and some reviews.
For those who actually paid money for a copy of the book, here's a list of additional comments, errata, and discussion.
Some links are provided to close equivalents of some parts of the book which are on this web site. They aren't always the same.
Notes and Comments
Science AskewThe word askew refers to things tilted, slightly off-kilter, or not quite "true". One thing both authors have in common is the ability to see the world slightly askew. This is a book for those who need a break from a literal view of the world, who need respite from the stultifying results of continually "wallowing in reality."
p. v. Fake Title Page, This page was an afterthought. Our editor insisted on the "lighthearted look" subtitle. (Yechh!) We liked "An Almanac of Scientific Ephemera", a play on "The American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac." Our editor thought that too subtle. So we sneaked it in here in the style of 17th century title pages: verbose, with run-on sentences and the silly-looking "s" which looks like "f ". The 17th century typeface is from Crazy Diamond Design in England. Their typefaces were also used in printed props for the first two "Harry Potter" movies. Harry's train ticket is in this same 17th century typeface, and it got him to Hogwart's. I have no idea where our title page will get you. Crazy Diamond is now (Dec 2002) offering a set of Wizard's fonts, parchment paper, a folio bound in genuine green dragon skin, seals and ribbons for keeping your parchments secure. It even has sample "spells" and instructions on proper wand waving technique to make the spells work properly. This should be fun for kids, and even adults who would like to cast a spell on someone (and who hasn't at one time or another?). This kit is also educational for it includes the true history of each of the medieval fonts. Order one now, before we turn you into a spider.
1: The March of Sciencep. 3. The "Eddy Current" piece is very old, as indicated by its references to "Weston Primary Cell" and "wardens".
Work is the curse of the laboring class, p. 4.
A chemistry graduate student consulted his advisor for guidance in choice of a chemistry career. "I enjoyed doing my research paper on acetates," he said. "Perhaps I could seek a research job specializing in that."p. 6. Overdoing it.
More "Do It" jokes
Oh, go ahead. Send your favorites to the address shown to the right.
p. 13. We omitted one of John's nice cartoons from the book, which illustrated "Captain Hooke's Law." It showed Captain Hook dangling from a huge spring hung from the mast of a ship, bouncing just out of reach of the jaws of the smiling Crocodile while Peter Pan and Tinker Bell fly around him. The figures were of course the recognizable ones from Disney's film version of Peter Pan. We approached the Disney Legal Department, and after repeated inquiry letters (which they later claimed to have lost) we finally got a reply denying permission in these words:
While we are sincerely flattered that you would choose to use our characters in your book, unfortunately, I am placed in the unenviable position of having to advise you that we cannot grant permission for use of your co-author's drawing. Our established policy prevents our granting anyone other than our licensees and our DISNEY artists the right to draw our characters. The reason behind this decision is we must closely control the appearances of our copyrighted characters as well as the manner in which they are depicted. As I am sure you can imagine, not all requests we receive are as wholesome as yours.Teachers who encourage their elementary school students to draw recognizable cartoon characters may be infringing someone's copyright. Let's be vigilant in rooting out such criminal activities in our schools before it leads inevitably to serious plagiarism of Ph.D. theses and the like.
It seems to me that the folks running things at this Mickey-Mouse ® organization lack a sense of humor. If you want to judge this for yourself, click here.
4: The Ideal Scientific Equipment CompanyThe Ideal Scientific Equipment Company was originally just called the "Ideal Equipment Company" before I discovered that there's a real company with that name.
My web page version of this chapter has something we couldn't afford in the book: a color picture of a perpetual motion machine.
The publication of this book has generated considerable interest in such products. Here's an order which came in recently:
Dear Sir,Our response:
7: Perpetual MotionTitle graphic, p. 44. Throughout this book are examples of John Holden's "Sneaky Scrolls". Are they a form of visual illusion? Well, not quite, for you can easily construct them from paper, if you cut the paper just right in places where it doesn't show when seen from the front.
We have also included pictures with very subtle jokes. The top picture on p. 46 is from a 19th century British patent. The artist/inventor seems to be teasing the reader. It has an outer wheel, with half-spherical cups to hold balls of a chain of lead balls. The upper and lower pulleys keep the balls always on the right side of the wheel, aided by a pulley at the top. So the wheel is always heavier on the right side.
10: Mind SciencesJohn and I have a difference of opinion about the best caption for the picture on page 78. John likes "Dyslexia? What's lesdyxia?" Of course the correct term for the mental quirk of interchanging parts of words is "dyslexia," and that's what the psychiatrist would have said. The patient's response "Lesdexia? What's lesdyxia?" illustrates that dyslexics don't always rearrange the parts the same way every time. But in either case, "lesdyxia" shouldn't be capitalized.
11: History of Science as it Wasn'tp. 94. Just this year (2001) engineers stabilized the Leaning tower of Pisa and reduced the angle of tilt. They didn't straighten it fully, for then it would no longer be a tourist attraction. The feat was accomplished in a manner that would make Galileo proud. The tower tilted because one side of the base settled into the soil more than the other. So the engineers put massive lead weights on the other side of the foundation to make it sink deeper into the soil. The weights were removed when the desired tilt angle was achieved.
p. 103. Alfredo da Vinci. The picture of Alfredo is taken from Leonardo's notebook drawing "Universal Man" shown here. Click on the drawing to see a larger picture of it. Leonardo may have used Alfredo as a model in a number of his drawings, though some scholars disagree.
For many years we did a physics lab on simple machines, including pulleys. My instruction sheets included diagrams of mechanical systems they might study in lab, including a fool's tackle. Some students would try and try, in mounting frustration, to make it. I'd watch with amusement as it collapsed every time. When they finally gave up and asked for help I'd say "It's always a good idea to solve simple mechanical systems using physics principles, mathematics and pencil and paper before using up lab time with trial-and-error methods." I also continually advised students to read the entire experiment before even coming to lab. At the very end of the instruction sheets were some questions, the last one being "Why do you suppose the system of figure 8 is sometimes called a "fool's tackle"?"
12: PseudosciencesHomo Sap, p. 110. John has put at least one hidden joke in this picture, which you might not perceive correctly at first.
Barney, the evil one?
A reader asks "We know that 666 is the Biblical 'number of the beast', but just when did people start 'beasting', that is identifying institutions and people with that number by numerological finagling?" Does any reader care to supply us with an authoritative answer?
Michael, from the Leiden U. sent us this additional example of numerological absurdity: A proof that girls are evil. This uses the logic of "Gilbert's Salary Theorem on page 5.
Girls cost you time and money (to a first order approximation; in reality far more)
13: The Emperor's New ClothesPerceptive readers have likely already concluded that I couldn't decide between two ways to end this piece, so I included both.
The typeface used here is Nicholas Cochin (NicholasCocTReg) from URW Euroworks.
14: MathematicsThe reason that every major university maintains a department of mathematics is that it is cheaper to do this than to institutionalize all those people.
p. 139. The Limerick has an error. Can you find it? You will find a corrected version here.
Here's another math limerick to check:
The integral of sec y dy
15: Statisticsp. 153. Statistics helps us understand the real world.
Studies have shown that the leading cause of death is life.
16: Sam SchwartzThe typeface used here is Goudy Medieval from Mentor Fonts.
This chapter has the distinction of having been rejected for publication by the Journal of Recreational Mathematics.
The rebellious Surd, cover (above) and p. 158 has the irrational numbers: infinity, ∞ (in his spear); √3 (in his spear); the unit imaginary, i (on his helmet); the base of natural logarithms, e (his shield); and pi, π (his trousers). Strictly, in mathematics, a surd is an irrational root of an integer, such as √3, or the sum of such surds. But "surd" has the colloquial dictionary definition "irrational" which leads to the false conclusion that any irrational number is a surd. However, nit-picking mathematicians insist that infinity is not an integer and not a number, either. So ∞ is not a surd.
John Holden has included accurate representations of mathematical curves in his drawings: loxodrome (p. 159), tractrix (p. 162), and the witch of Agnesi (p. 163). John told me he was fascinated with the epicycle (p. 164) for you must pedal it backward to go forward. Or if you pedal forward, you go backward, just like real life.
17: EngineeringPage 167. Many persons read without noticing something hidden in plain sight. Did you notice the hidden SHOCK in "Safety Hazards Often Can Kill?"
Page 168. The "tax them" quote is of dubious authenticity, and we could not document it specifically to Faraday. See comments at Scientific Urban Legends.
The poem on page 179, "If at first you don't succeed..." is an anonymous parody of Edgar Guest's poetic optimism.
The illusory gears on page 171 may be seen in color and three dimensions in my Illusions in 3d page.
The Dope Building picture (p. 180) has quite a few illusory deceptions in it, several (the planks connecting floors) based on the Penrose illusory triangle (p. 92). It is also used in the belt on the top floor. The duct work has a three-tined fork and two (?) floors above two workers carry a two-tined version of it. The fool's tackle seems to be lifting a heavy load, as well as some workmen at the right (see p. 103 and 107). A number of the drive belts are similar to those in the picture on p. 191.
You may think that the structure of this building couldn't be realized with real building materials. The picture at the right shows a similar structure achieved with Qubo ® building bricks. (These are compatible with Lego ® bricks, but we haven't yet tried this with Lego, and can't guarantee this would work with them.) These plastic interlocking bricks are 1 cm high and this model is 6 cm high. The photo was made with a digital camera, and an auxiliary close-up lens. The model was only about 10 cm from the front lens. The picture was made with one exposure, with no retouching or digital manipulation. Readers are invited to figure out how this result was accomplished. Or get out your kid's plastic blocks and construct one. If you really want the answer, look here.
19: Cutting Edge ScienceBob Schadewald's Gravity Engine (p. 189) is discussed in greater detail in my Museum of Unworkable Devices.. There you can also see Bob's own color picture of it, and there's a link to a page where you can view it in stereo 3d.
The age of the Universe is a Function of Time grew out of the innocent looking table on page 197 which I had prepared for a college Astronomy class. Struck with the obvious implications of the data, I plotted it (bottom of page 197). The text just embellished these facts. I am pleased to report that most recent age estimates made by NASA (Feb 2000) gives the age of the universe as 13.7 billion years, to an accuracy of 1%. In 2013 the European Space Agency’s Planck mission led to a revised value of 13.82 billion years. Well, these values are in decent agreement with our graph, but I confidently predict that within 10 years this value will be found to be at least 10% too low.
For those of you who like this sort of parody, you will find more listed in the Cutting Edge Science department of my web site.
20: ResearchReaders of this book may recognize many old and familiar jokes in this book. This is, after all, an anthology. However, even the oldies have been massaged, tweaked and sometimes rewritten. The new material gets seamlessly (we hope) melded into the original. The "buttered the wrong side" joke, which precedes the often-seen "cat and buttered bread" story, is entirely original to this book. Of course, such originally soon slips into the "public domain" and the author is generally uncredited. The first sentence of the "specialst/generalist" observation on p. 204 is an often seen joke, but the second sentence is original.
The reference to Omni magazine (p. 202) was from The New Scientist. I gave up trying to find the original Omni contest in the magazine, and now I strongly suspect that there never was such a contest. If any reader can set me straight on this, we can correct the record in the next printing of the book.
We may have omitted an important principle of laboratory research:
The Principle of Resistentialism. Inanimate objects are innately perverse.Human subjects can be even more perverse.
21: LimericksP. 206, bottom. Many sources credit this Limerick to "A. Reginald Butler". We are reasonably certain we have correctly identified its author as "Buller".
P. 208. A Möbius strip has only one side. But our stripper does show her backside on the last page of this book.
The limericks from p. 209 to 214 are original to this book. All are by Donald Simanek, except the very last one, which is by John Holden.
22: Philosophy of Sciencep. 223. The Logical Necessity of Unicorns
We asked Prof. Congdon to supply us with a brief, easy-to-understand
explanation of the logical deceptions in this little essay. To our
surprise, he obliged:
Normally, it would be unusual to attack an argument primarily
because we know damn well the conclusion is false.
In logic that approach would be dismissed as "begging the question."
(The phrase has a meaning distinct from the common use referring
to a question that screams to be asked.
Here the idea is that, as the issue is the existence of unicorns,
it is inappropriate to settle the question prior to analyzing an
argument that claims to resolve that issue and then pretend that
constitutes some kind of evidence against the argument).
So, given that we know damn well unicorns don't exist,
and that this is quite irrelevant to any arguments claiming
otherwise...whathehellz wrong with this argument?
I won't reproduce the argument hereread the book; it's on page 224.
And I don't mean to insult those who believe the flaws of the argument
are too obvious to merit any explanation of them.
You guys can skip this and get on with your Mensa correspondence
and the rest of your pathetic one-dimensional lives.
But here's my take on the preposterous claim that unicorns not only exist,
their existence is logically guaranteed.
The argument asks the reader to buy into two notions,
both of which have a vague plausibility,
neither of which is anything but ridiculous.
Finally, I am accused by a friend of writing this because I am afraid
that people will think I actually believe in unicorns.
I am not at all afraid of what people think I believe in.
I have tenure.
Simon Laurensen, the production designer for this book,
originally had the picture at the
bottom of p. 244 too small. I asked that it be larger, to show the detail.
He got the point, and suggested we could keep the small one and
add a larger one on the next page with the caption
"Enlarged to show detail." We didn't.
This document is not on my web page, for the server storage space required for
decent copies of the pictures would be prohibitive.
The following information is provided here for the convenience of historians of
science wishing to correlate Finagle's career with other historical events.
Normally, it would be unusual to attack an argument primarily because we know damn well the conclusion is false. In logic that approach would be dismissed as "begging the question." (The phrase has a meaning distinct from the common use referring to a question that screams to be asked. Here the idea is that, as the issue is the existence of unicorns, it is inappropriate to settle the question prior to analyzing an argument that claims to resolve that issue and then pretend that constitutes some kind of evidence against the argument). So, given that we know damn well unicorns don't exist, and that this is quite irrelevant to any arguments claiming otherwise...whathehellz wrong with this argument?
I won't reproduce the argument hereread the book; it's on page 224. And I don't mean to insult those who believe the flaws of the argument are too obvious to merit any explanation of them. You guys can skip this and get on with your Mensa correspondence and the rest of your pathetic one-dimensional lives. But here's my take on the preposterous claim that unicorns not only exist, their existence is logically guaranteed.
The argument asks the reader to buy into two notions, both of which have a vague plausibility, neither of which is anything but ridiculous.
Finally, I am accused by a friend of writing this because I am afraid that people will think I actually believe in unicorns. I am not at all afraid of what people think I believe in.
I have tenure.
Simon Laurensen, the production designer for this book, originally had the picture at the bottom of p. 244 too small. I asked that it be larger, to show the detail. He got the point, and suggested we could keep the small one and add a larger one on the next page with the caption "Enlarged to show detail." We didn't.
This document is not on my web page, for the server storage space required for decent copies of the pictures would be prohibitive.
The following information is provided here for the convenience of historians of science wishing to correlate Finagle's career with other historical events.
p. 245. Here, in fine print, is a tidbit for perceptive readers. The title page of Finagle's 1898 book lists him as a professor of sciosophy and sciolism. The dictionary definition of sciolism is "A pretentious attitude of scholarship, superficial knowledgeability." The term "sciosophy" was coined by ichthyologist David Star Jordan (1851-1931), in his 1927 book The Higher Foolishness, a debunking of pseudosciences. He defined the word to mean "shadow wisdom", the sort of thinking that concocts alternatives to science based on inadequate understanding of science and its methods. So we have here, obviously, a title page from a reprint edition of Finagle's book later than 1927, an edition that we have been unable to locate. Finagle founded the department of Sciosophy and Sciolism in 1929, late in his career, when he had become totally disengaged from the loop of mainstream science. He hoped this new major program would revolutionize science. Unfortunately few students signed up, and when Finagle retired in 1931, what remained of the curriculum was quietly integrated into many other courses throughout the university.
Finagle's theory of the void influenced other independent thinkers. Chrisfield Johnson's book The One Great Force: The cause of gravitation, planetary motion, heat, light, electricity, magnetism, chemical affinity, and other natural phenomena. (Breed & Lent, 1868) postulates a space filled with caloric, which he calls a "self-repellent" substance. To him, it is not gravity that holds the earth together, it is the pressure of the caloric which "holds the particles of the body together". Johnson is melding ideas from Finagle's void theory with the ether theory.
By coincidence, Finagle died the same year I was born. Perhaps I was destined to carry on Finagle's legacy in physics. I also note another coincidence. George W. Atherton was appointed President of the Pennsylvania State College in 1882. He hired Finagle in 1884. The graduate dormitory I lived in while completing my physics Ph.D. at the Pennsylvania State University was Atherton Hall.
24: Science and Religionp. 266, last line. "O.k." is not OK. Back in the dark ages when I went to school, our English teacher would insist that abbreviations like O.K. have periods. Today the trend toward spelling simplification dictates that it's OK to leave out the periods. Old habits die hard.
In school we were told that the word derived from "Old Kinderhook", the birthplace of President Martin Van Buren and also his nickname. It was used in his 1840 re-election campaign. Some even said it was a corruption of German: "oll korrect". But research goes on, and Allen Walker Read showed that it dates from the 1830s where it was used in Boston newspapers, one of many "joke" abbreviations for common words, often based on mis-spellings of words. In this case the joke was that neither the O nor the K was correct, i.e., "OK". This is one of the few that persisted. Moral: don't believe everything your teachers tell you.
As for my combination of upper and lowercase, I blame it on the folks who wrote the software WS_FTP32 for file transfers on the internet. I use it often, and I just noticed that its "accept" button is labeled "Ok". That must have impressed itself on my consciousness. It could also be used as evidence that computer software writers aren't models of language literacy.
26. Final ExamBonus question: What happens when an irresistible force acts on an immovable object?
The philosophy major answers: "This question has two contradictory premises, therefore it's a logically improper question."
The engineering major answers: "You just solve F = ma for a and take the limit, which gives the form infinity over infinity, then use L'Hospital's rule.
The liberal arts major, taking Astronomy I as the easiest way to satisfy the science requirement, answers hopefully: "The Big Bang?"
The journalism major answers: "An inconceivable catastrophe."
This last answer was contributed by Dr. James A. Van Allen, who says that his college physics profs used to use it as a joke.
27: The Illustrated Dictionary of Physics
p. 293 Miss Metric. Our editor was not fond of our cartoon picture. She even subtly suggested that we might "lose it" while cutting the size of this book by 50%. Darn, we forgot. This made me wonder whether the Brits have lost their sense of humour sometime in the last three decades.
Some people have told us that the cartoon is not "politically correct" in these touchy times. How short are the memories of the British. In 1969 the British government established a Metrication Board to promote wider use of the Metric System. As part of this effort, the United Kingdom Metric Association and the Construction Industry Training Board distributed a series of posters to promote wider understanding of the metric system. One of these is reproduced here as a public service, to remind people of simpler times when even government agencies were not shy about promoting a good cause using attention getting methods. It depicts a bikini-clad gal with her measurements boldly indicated in centimeters on the left, and in inches on the right, in subdued grey. She quickly gained the affectionate name "Miss Metric." That's what John's cartoon was parodying, in case anyone missed the point. [No, you cannot click on this image to see a larger version.]
29: AnonAnon never wrote a textbook, or published a scientific paper, and therefore never won a Nobel Prize or any other honor or award. So this piece has nothing to do with science, but I couldn't resist including the biography of Anon for it is one of my favorites. It took four years to complete, from the initial idea, through intermittent embellishing, tinkering and massaging, during moments stolen from working on my Ph.D. thesis. (Hey, it's cheaper than therapy.) I'd get an idea during a dull committee meeting and jot it down for possible inclusion. My notes looked a mess. But eventually it fell together into a semi-coherent document, and I felt it had finally achieved my original intent and I could do no more. I enjoy lulling the reader with plausible-sounding soporific prose, which then forces a mental double-take and the question "What did that sentence really say?"
ErrataThe errors in this book were provided by the authors at no extra charge. But publishers like to know about them, so they may be corrected if and when there are additional printings.
p. xii. The very last italicized quote on the page is by John C. Holden.
p. 14. The second line of text should read "...remained to be discovered." Chances are that the missing "to" will be found somewhere else in the book where it shouldn't be.
p. 28, last line of last paragraph. "IEC" should be "ISE".
p. 39. Third line from bottom. It should read "Terrorostracodus tectonica". The capital "T" is correct syntax for such names.
p. 78. The picture caption. The word "lesdyxia" should not be capitalized.
p. 149. The caption of the bottom picture should read "Make the width of the regression line proportional to the uncertainty of the data." Or something like that.
p. 265. Next to last line. According to style manuals the names sun, moon and earth should not be capitalized except when used with "the" in connection with other planets as in "The planets Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars are sometimes called terrestrial planets." We tried to be consistent about this; we really did. But we failed.
p. 266. Last line. OK is preferred.
P. 287. Eighth line from bottom. The horsepower is not a unit of work, but is a unit of power.
p. 298. Fifth line from bottom. Delete the word "does".
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Most recent edit, April 2017.