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Science as Play

Pierre Laszlo

Flying Down to Rio

People often like to pretend they are something they are not. Just consider the goings–on during Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro or Mardi Gras in New Orleans—temporary indulgences that only serve to call attention to the ordinary intolerance of such raucous behavior.

Whereas larger society keeps a lid on the carnival spirit, science encourages and nurtures the playful wearing of a mask and other forms of irreverence towards authority. Take the funny names chemists have given to various polycyclic hydrocarbons: propellane, paddlane, pagodane, twistane, windowpane, not to mention bastardane. Their labels for new ketones do not lag far behind, with penguinone and megaphone. Acids? Let me only mention moronic and traumatic acids. I could go on and on: Each class of organic molecules includes a few such tongue–in–cheek monikers. Similar fun is had in other fields of science, as for instance by physicists who have named a class of elementary particles quarks, of which charm is one of the flavors.

Why, what's the point of all this foolishness? The discoverers of a new particle and the makers of a new molecule are entitled to give it a name. Do they abuse their privilege by coming up with a funny one? Not really. Playful terms transfer the vernacular of the laboratory to the more formal written language of publications. In doing so, they gently flaunt seriousness and authority. They wittily show irreverence. They are the equivalent of the child who sticks out a tongue at someone in derisive defiance.

Hoaxes are another product of the playfulness of scientists. Consider a relatively recent example: the "Plate of Brasse," which states England's claim to California and was supposedly engraved by Sir Francis Drake's party during his visit in 1579. The plate was discovered in the 1930s. After it was declared genuine, it became the state's greatest historical document. But in 1977, Helen Michel and Frank Asaro, who were then both on the staff of the Nuclear Science Division of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, used neutron–activation analysis to re–examine the piece. They showed that the copper and zinc alloyed to make the brass were of higher purity than would have been available in the 16th century. Drake's plate was likely crafted, they concluded, between the second half of the 19th century and 1936, when it was first brought to light.

Last year historians at the University of California, Berkeley, announced that the artifact was devised as a practical joke, conceived by a group of friends of Herbert E. Bolton, who directed the Bancroft Library at Berkeley from 1920 to 1940. Bolton, it seems, was intrigued by tales of Drake having installed a plate to record his visit to California, so much so that he often urged his students to look for it. Some of Bolton's chums eventually decided to pull the professor's leg. But things went awry after Bolton went public and announced that the ersatz relic was authentic before the pranksters were able to warn him off.

Clearly, hoaxes can be dangerous it they get out of control. But most remain safely confined to the laboratory, where they sometime serve a healthy function, one best demonstrated with another example. Some years ago Nathan S. Lewis, a professor of chemistry at Caltech, and a graduate student were doing experiments in the laboratory of a senior colleague, Harry Gray. Another coworker—whom I'll just call Fred—had the habit of going through their data and rushing to Gray with his interpretation. Lewis decided to set  a trap for him. He recalls:

I manufactured an NMR spectrum that was a terrific result. We left it out as bait. [Fred] took it and wrote up a paper on how important this result was. He was ready to go right to [the Journal of the American Chemical Society]. He had taken hook, line, and sinker on the manufactured piece of data. We didn't let him mail it, but we let him gloat around for a couple of days. This stopped him temporarily from taking our data and interpreting it before making sure it was right.

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