An excerpt from

Academia Obscura

Glen Wright

Academic Animals

A quick look at the Twitter hashtag #AcademicsWithCats is evidence enough that academics, like everyone else on the internet, love cats. In fact, cats have been distracting well-meaning scholars and writers since long before the YouTube era.

Emir Filipović from the University of Sarajevo was trawling through the Dubrovnik State Archives when he stumbled upon an interesting medieval manuscript dating from 1445 Italy, back when books were painstakingly written out by dedicated scribes who spent months on each work. While the piece may have been otherwise unremarkable, Emir noticed that the paper was marked with four distinct blotches of ink, unmistakably the paw prints of a cat. It could have been worse though, as one scribe could attest. Around 1420 he found a page of his hard work ruined by a cat that had decided to urinate on his book. Leaving the rest of the page empty, and adding a picture of a cat (that looks more 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.

While very occasionally ruining manuscripts, cats undoubtedly saved many hundreds more, by hunting mice that would have otherwise had a field day feasting on the paper. One special cat has outshone all others and has earned a reputation as an academic legend. F.D.C. Willard has published as both a co-author and, unbelievably, as the sole author, on scientific papers in the field of high temperature physics. F.D.C. Willard is in fact the ‘pen name’ of Chester, the companion of Jack H. Hetherington, an American physicist and mathematician. The story goes that a colleague of Hetherington’s reviewed a paper for him and said that all was good, except for the fact he was using a lot of the ‘royal we’, a bugbear of the targeted journal. Bearing in mind that correcting this minor grammatical tick would have meant retyping the while thing on a typewriter, Hetherington instead decided to simply add a second author. Concerned that his colleagues would recognise his pet’s real name, he wrote 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. Hetherington recalls: “Shortly thereafter a visitor to [the university] asked to talk to me, and since I was unavailable asked to talk with Willard. Everyone laughed and soon the cat was out of the bag.” When the article reprints arrived, Hetherington inked Chester’s paw and sent a few ‘signed’ copies to friends. One copy was sent to a then unknown physicist at Grenoble. He later recounted that at a meeting to decide who to invite to a conference someone said “why don’t we invite Willard, he never gets invited anywhere.” The physicist showed the copy of the paper and “everyone agreed that it seemed to be a cat paw signature”. Neither Willard nor Hetherington were invited. Some years later Hetherington and his collaborators were bickering about how to present certain ideas in a paper, but ultimately none of them were willing to sign the finished product under their own name. Willard came out of retirement, hastily learned French, and became the sole author of a paper 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 April 1st 2014 that all feline-authored publications would be made open access. “Not since Schrödinger has there been an opportunity like this for cats in physics”, the announcement read.

“I gratefully acknowledge”

Almost every academic paper features an acknowledgements section or footnote, usually along the lines of:
I gratefully acknowledge [so and so] for their assistance/ comments/ support.
Occasionally these rarely read footnotes contain something a little spicier. Perhaps the boldest of all comes from a group of French researchers, whose acknowledgements section reads: “We gratefully thank the Programme National de Physique Stellaire for financial support. We do not gratefully thank T. Appourchaux for his useless and very mean comments” (emphasis theirs, not mine!). Peer review comments are not (yet) made public, so we will likely never know exactly what Mr. Appourchaux said to warrant such a reprisal.

One Italian researcher gave his country’s Ministry of University and Research its own ‘Unacknowledgements’ section to call them out on their failure to hand over the cash they promised, while a British author writing a history of science fiction took it even further, wishing the British Arts and Humanities Research Board “a plague on their house”. Academics are not generally an aggressive bunch, and some other tongue-in-cheek acknowledgments are a little more light-hearted. American evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen, who was “considered unconventional even by eccentrics”, thanked the National Science Foundation for “regularly rejecting my (honest) grant applications for work on real organisms, thus forcing me into theoretical work”. A Chinese researcher based in the US thanked: “the U.S. Immigration Service under the Bush administration, whose visa background security check forced her to spend two months (following an international conference) in a third country, free of routine obligations”. Some researchers claim divine inspiration for their work, such as in a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, where the authors thank the cargo cult God John Frum, while others get their inspiration from the heavy metal band Slayer. In one paper the authors thank Italian pornstar Rocco Siffredi for his ”constant support” of their research on cystic fibrosis treatments (he’s all heart), in another Muamar “Dirty Old Man” Gadaffi is listed as an author and is said to have contributed to the paper through “inspirational level of lived coherence”, whatever that means.