David G. Wiseman

The Progress of Science is Worth a Few Giggles

From the Boston Globe, Monday, Sept.21 1992 p.30. This is from the
weekly Science column by Chet Raymo.

THE PROGRESS OF SCIENCE IS WORTH A FEW GIGGLES

	On Columbus Day, Nasa scientists will launch a massive new search 
for intelligent alien life. The $100 million, 10-year project will use
some of the world's largest radio telescopes and fastest computers to scan
the entire sky for signals of intelligent origin, with particular emphasis
on 1,000 carefully selected sun-like starts.
	The project has been a frequent target for budget cuts, and full-
funding is still in doubt. As project manager Michael Klein admits, the
search for intelligent aliens has "a high giggle factor," meaning that not
every politician takes the project seriously.
	One must suppose that Columbus himself had to contend with the
giggle factor. Surely, some advisors in the court of Isabel and Ferdinand
tittered gleefully when the Genoese navigator said he would reach the
East by sailing west. If not for the giggle factor, he might have been
supplied with something more than three tiny, worm infested ships.
	Given there has probably always been a giggle factor, it is 
interesting to imagine how it might have influenced other decisive moments
in the history of science, such as the discovery of microbes, law and
genetics, and relativity.
	Perhaps in a letter such as this from Henry Oldenburg, Secretary 
of the Royal Society, London, to Anthony Van Leeuwenhoek, Delft, Holland, 
20th of October, 1676:

   ----------------------------

Dear Mr. Anthony can Leeuwenhoek,

	Your letter of October 10th has been received here with
amusement. Your account of myriad "little animals" seen swimming in
rainwater, with the aid of your so-called "microscope," caused the
members of the society considerable merriment when read at our most
recent meeting. Your novel descriptions of the sundry anatomies and
occupations of these invisible creatures led one member to imagine that
your "rainwater" might have contained an ample portion of distilled
spirits--imbibed by the investigator. Another member raised a glass of
clear water and exclaimed, "Behold, the Africk of Leeuwenhoek." For
myself, I withhold judgment as to the sobriety of your observations and
the veracity of your instrument. However, a vote having been taken among
the members--accompanied I regret to inform you, by considerable
giggling--it has been decided not to publish your communication in the
Proceedings of this esteemed society. However, all here wish your
"little animals" health, prodigality and good husbandry by their
ingenious "discoverer.

   -----------------------------

	Or a letter from Cyrill Franz Napp, abbot of the Monastery of
St. Thomas, Brno, Moravia, to Father Gregor Mendel, June 15, 1859:

   -----------------------------

Dear Brother in Christ,

	On Wednesday of this past week I had tea with His Excellency the
Bishop. During the course of our conversation, he inquired about rumors
that have come to his ear regarding certain experimental investigations
by one of the brothers of our monastery. He was referring, of course, to
your own inquiries into the procreative habits of peas. I assured him
that your efforts were in earnest, and that you had discerned intriguing
mathematical patterns among the inherited characteristics of peas. The
Bishop suppressed a giggle as I described your pea-genealogies, which he
thought more exquisitely contrived than the family tree of the Emperor
himself. He asked if I though it seemly for a man of your intellectual
attainments to be plodding in a pea patch, prying into the germinal
proclivities of peas. He suggested that pea propogation was a subject
less wothy of your curiosity than, say, the writings of the Church
Fathers or the Doctrine of Grace. My dear Brother Mendel, as sympathetic
as I am to your researches, we can ill afford to have the monastery made
the laughingstock of the diocese. I have therefore issued instructions
that your prolific pea patch be plowed and replanted with potatoes.

   ----------------------------

	Or this from the Editor, Annalen der Physik, to Albert Einstein,
July 10, 1905:

   ----------------------------

Dear Herr Einstein,

	I am in receipt of your three papers submitted to this journal
for publication, on a "quantum" theory of photoelectric efect, a
revolutionary interpretation of Brownian motion, and a "relativistic"
explanation of the laws of electrodynamics. The editorial staff of the
Annalen der Physik are in agreement that the papers represent ingenious
parodies of contemporary physics, and send you hearty congratulations
for having concocted such elegant spoofs. What makes the papers so
terribly clever is their apparent ordinariness, but of course the
perceptive reader will recognize that your theses are at odds with the
entire structure of physiscs. If your ideas had veracity, then all of
physics from Newton to the present would be called into question. Once
we discerned the joke, we had a rollicking good laugh. We are impressed
that a mere patent clerk could devise such theories with such a
high--ah, what shall we call it?--such a high giggle factor. We are
herewith returning your three amusing papers, and thank you for the
entertainment.

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