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Fantastic titles and where to find them

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Academic humour in published papers can take different forms, but funny titles are one of the best. We recall some of the best titles published in physics over the years.

When Ralph Alpher and his supervisor George Gamow submitted their paper “The Origin of Chemical Elements” to Physical Review, Gamow decided to add Hans Bethe to the author list for the fun of having an article by Alpher, Bethe and Gamow. Bethe did not object and the article was aptly published on April 1st, 73 years ago1. The αβγ paper, as it came to be known, is a classic example of academic humour. Ever since physicists have been looking for new ways to surprise and amuse their readers, much to the editors’ dismay (or delight).

Other well-known examples of quirky academic humour in physics include the penguin diagrams (a class of Feynman diagrams whose name is the result of a lost game of darts whose stakes were the inclusion of the word ‘penguin’ in the next paper); the “best abstract ever” according to the Ig Nobel prize committee (which answers the title “Can Apparent Superluminal Neutrino Speeds be Explained as a Quantum Weak Measurement?” with “Probably not”); and acronyms such as GADZOOKS! (Gadolinium Antineutrino Detector Zealously Outperforming Old Kamiokande, Super!), HAYSTAC (Haloscope At Yale Sensitive To Axion CDM) or H0LiCOW (H0 Lenses in COSMOGRAIL’s Wellspring). The art of creating hilarious acronyms is well documented.

When it comes to the titles of academic papers, there are a few favourite themes. A study2 surveyed the literature indexed in Medline and identified the most popular allusions to Shakespeare, stories, proverbs, the Bible, Lewis Carroll, and movie titles (oops). One can see why: a paper on vacuum almost begs for a title with “much ado about nothing”. Sometimes there is more to literary allusion and quantum Cheshire cats joined the physics bestiary as an established concept like the penguin diagrams. Our favourites in the literary allusion category are Brane New World and “Kerrr” Black Hole: The Lord of the String (Kerrr is not a typo) for movie-inspired titles The Matrix Reloaded - on the Dark Energy Seesaw and the entire series of [Insert something] strikes back titles, however Charming Penguins Strike Back is the winner.

Alliteration is also popular, with the classic examples of Would Bohr be Born if Bohm Were Born Before Born? and Brane Big-Bang Brought by Bulk Bubble. But the titles that make you read them twice are probably the most rewarding. Our favourite examples include: Simple Exercises to Flatten Your Potential (it’s the inflationary potential in cosmology), The Axis of Evil and the follow-up titles (the axis of evil is an anomaly in the Cosmic Microwave Background observational data), Decapitating Tadpoles (tadpole instabilities in string theory), Four Hot DOGs in the Microwave (DOGs are neither the fluffy nor the savoury type, but dust-obscured galaxies). Other examples we came across are: Fifty Ways to Love Your Lever: Myosin Motors, Snakes on a Spaceship - An Overview of Python in Heliophysics, Will Any Crap We Put into Graphene Increase Its Electrocatalytic Effect? (sic) and Ferroelectrics Go Bananas.

As much as the Nature Reviews Physics team likes punny titles, we are not encouraging them in our pages for two reasons: accessibility and discoverability. Funny titles often rely on a subtle understanding of English language or cultural references that cannot be assumed as universal. Given that the readership of English-language scientific journals is increasingly international it is important to consider whether the pun will actually get across. Furthermore, given the ever-growing volumes of scientific literature, having a memorable title may at first seem like a good way to make the article stand out. Indeed, that can be the case if a human reader were browsing through a list such as a conference program. However, today literature searches are done not by browsing tables of contents, but by keyword search and filtering. AI-enabled recommendation engines are increasingly popular so punny titles are unlikely to get picked up, at least until AI engines develop a sense of humour.

References

  1. 1.

    Alpher, R. A., Bethe, H. & Gamow, G. The origin of chemical elements. Phys. Rev. 73, 803 (1948).

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  2. 2.

    Goodman, N. W. From Shakespeare to Star Trek and beyond: a Medline search for literary and other allusions in biomedical titles. BMJ 331, 1540–1542 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

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Fantastic titles and where to find them. Nat Rev Phys 3, 225 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s42254-021-00299-1

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