The hidden silly side of higher education
Academia Obscura is an irreverent glimpse inside the ivory tower, exposing the eccentric and slightly unhinged world of university life. Take a trip through the spectrum of academic oddities and unearth the Easter eggs buried in peer reviewed papers, the weird and wonderful world of scholarly social media, and rats in underpants.
If #AcademicsWithCats has taught us anything, it is that academics, like everyone else with an internet connection, love cats. But the academic–cat relationship predates the social media era by hundreds of years. Emir Filipović from the University of Sarajevo was trawling through the Dubrovnik State Archives when he stumbled upon a medieval Italian manuscript (dated 1445) marked clearly with four paw prints.
Figure 1: Paw prints on medieval manuscript
It could have been worse. Around 1420, one scribe found a page of his hard work ruined by a cat that had urinated on his book. Leaving the rest of the page empty, and adding a picture of a cat (that looks like a donkey), he wrote the following:
Here is nothing missing, but a cat urinated on this during a certain night. Cursed be the pesty cat that urinated over this book during the night in Deventer and because of it many other cats too. And beware well not to leave open books at night where cats can come.
Though occasionally ruining manuscripts, cats undoubtedly saved a great deal of invaluable works by hunting mice that would have otherwise had a field day feasting on the paper. Others, like Jordan the library cat, have taken a less ambitious approach to academic life. Jordan’s home is the Edinburgh University friary, but he hangs out in the library, where students fawn over him as he sleeps in his favourite turquoise chair. He has his own Facebook page and the library has even issued him a library card.
One curious cat has outshone all other academic animals. F.D.C. Willard has published as a co-author and, incredibly, the sole author of papers in the field of low temperature physics.
When American physicist and mathematician Jack Hetherington was told that he needed to eliminate the use of the royal ‘we’ in a paper, he was reluctant to retype the entire manuscript (this was in the days of the typewriter, so rewording the paper would have been a considerable undertaking). To save time, he simply added his cat as a co-author. Concerned that colleagues would recognise Chester’s name, he concocted a pen name: F.D. for Felis domesticus, C for Chester, and Willard after the cat that sired him. The joint paper was published in Physical Review Letters in 1975 and has been cited about 70 times.
When his complimentary printed copies arrived, Hetherington inked Chester’s paw, signed a few, and sent them to friends. One of the copies found its way to a colleague who later recounted that a junior physicist on a conference organising committee proposed inviting Willard to present the paper because ‘he never gets invited anywhere’. Hetherington’s colleague showed the committee his signed copy of the paper, whereupon everyone in the room agreed that the paper appeared to have been signed by a cat. Neither Willard nor Hetherington was invited.
‘Shortly thereafter a visitor to [the university] asked to talk to me, and since I was unavailable asked to talk with Willard’, Hetherigton later recalled, ‘Everyone laughed and soon the cat was out of the bag.’
Some years later, Hetherington and his collaborators were struggling to agree on the finer points of an article they were working on. With none of them ultimately willing to sign off on the finished product, they pulled Willard out of retirement and named him as the sole author of the paper, which was eventually published in the French journal La Recherche.
Willard was considered for a position at the university and, in honour of his contribution to physics, APS Journals announced (on 1 April, 2014) that all feline-authored publications would be made open access. The announcement reads: ‘Not since Schrödinger has there been an opportunity like this for cats in physics.’
Academia Obscura book - published!
Thursday, 16 November 2017
Dear lovely suppporters of academic obscurity,
The book is finally here! Like all good academic publications, it is way over the deadline, with excessive footnotes, and petty comments from Reviewer 2. (I just hope more than 3 people read it).
First off, a massive thank you for pledging to make the book a reality (509 of you!). I am extremely grateful. I know it isn't easy to part with hard…
Academics with Cats, and an update
Monday, 21 November 2016
Dear lovers of academic obscurity,
It has been a while so I wanted to give you a quick update and some news, both bad and good!
The bad news (except for the Trumpocalypse, the loss of reason, and the coming death of expertise) is that the Academia Obscura book won’t be on your bookshelves for some time yet :( The publisher has decided that the holiday season is the best release date for "this…
Final daft submitted!
Monday, 25 July 2016
Just a quick update from the Ivory Tower: the final draft of the Academia Obscura book has been submitted! It is now up to the lovely folks at Unbound to sort out copyeditors and proofreaders and the like. Very excited to share the finished product with you in the not-so-distant future.
One of my favourite parts of writing the book was slipping in amusing footnotes here and there…
An Update! An excerpt!
Monday, 7 March 2016
Dearest academic shed-folk,
First, some good news! I have been writing like a tenured prof on sabbatical and have just handed over the first draft of the book to Unbound. I’ve also seen the first crack at the cover art and it is looking great - it’s got cats and beards and penguins and everything! So excited to share it with you all (soon, hopefully).
The bad news is that publication will likely…
Wednesday, 6 January 2016
Dearest backers of academic obscurity :)
First off, happy new year! May your coffee be strong, may your Mondays be short, and may your hard drives never fail.
I've been hard at work, condensing all the academic oddness into a lovely little book to make you smile and think "hey, maybe this isn't so boring after all". Things you are going to get in the book:
- Awful Rate My Professors comments…
The Second Annual Academics with Cats Awards!
Friday, 13 November 2015
Academic cat lovers around the world demanded it, and here it is: the Second Academics with Cats Awards!
How to enter
Simple! Check out the categories below and tweet your finest cat pics (with caption) to #AcademicsWithCats. We’ll collate them and our expert panel will shortlist the best. Public voting will open on 25 November 2015.
This year there are 5 categories…
Illustrations by RedPenBlackPen!
Wednesday, 21 October 2015
Dr. Jason McDermott is a Computational Biologist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. He also happens to draw awesome academic cartoons under the alias RedPenBlackBen. Jason has agreed to grace the Academia Obscura book with his artistic flair and I am absolutely thrilled that he is on board!
In other news, we are currently working on the 2nd Annual #AcademicsWithCats Awards! Last…
The Weird and Wonderful World of Academic Twitter, and an update!
Saturday, 12 September 2015
Hello lovely Academia Obscura pledgers :)
In case you missed it, Times Higher Education published a piece I wrote about the academic twittersphere a couple of weeks back. The response was great! Following the success of this piece, and the earlier article on the hidden silly side of higher education, THE have agreed to let me write this nonsense once a month!
Some great stuff has come across…
What’s in a Shed?
Tuesday, 1 September 2015
Many of the lovely people pledging for the Academia Obscura book on Unbound have asked me what the shed is all about.
A shed can be many things. A shed “can be anything from a dunny-sized construction to an aircraft hangar covering an acre or two”. It can be virtual, hewn from 0’s and 1’s and existing only fleetingly on your computer screen. In other, very specific contexts, “the garden shed is…
First shed post!
Friday, 17 July 2015
Dear Academia Obscura supporters!
Wow! Just under 3 weeks in and we are at almost 40% funded! This is a great start - thank you so much for supporting the book and for pledging. The big news is that yesterday the lovely folk at Scrivener pledged for the ‘Tenure’ level, contributing a whopping £2,000! I absolutely love the Scrivener software and am thrilled that they will be the frontispiece in…
These people are helping to fund Academia Obscura.