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Researcher Name Coincidence

Humor and academia are an unlikely combination, and I didn't think they could coexist until I read Academia Obscura: The Hidden Silly Side of Higher Education by Glen Wright, which I spotted by chance in the Ernakulam Public Library.

Photo credit: Goodreads

From the self-deprecatory tongue-in-cheek autobiographical information he provides in the book, it appears the author was a university student working—rather half-heartedly—on his PhD and had not completed it at the time of publication of his book. In fact, he doesn't sound optimistic that he ever will; it was perhaps to relieve the angst surrounding his still-born PhD that he began a blog on the amusing side of academic life. Out of the blog emerged the book.

The central thesis of the book is that humor, farce, and the absurd hide in plain sight in the groves of academia. Here is an example of what you'll find in the book: "As part of a long-running bet, five Swedish scientists have been sneaking Bob Dylan lyrics into paper titles. This is how a paper on intestinal gases acquired the title ‘Nitric oxide and inflammation: The answer is blowing in the wind’. Elsewhere, the Rolling Stones have been immortalized (‘“I can’t get no satisfaction”: The impact of personality and emotion on postpurchase processes’), as have ABBA (‘Money, money, money: not so funny in the research world’) and Nirvana (‘Smells Like Clean Spirit’)."

That was about paper titles. Let's move on to my topic for today: researcher surnames. From Academia Obscura: "There is a plant scientist called Dr Flowers, and two uncanny coincidences come from the world of food science: Ron Buttery has studied the chemical composition of the flavour of popcorn, and Kevin Cheeseman wrote a paper on the fungi used in cheesemaking." Academia Obscura is an amusing book that all academic copyeditors should read; it will recharge their batteries.

A few months ago, I was immersed in a collection of animal research studies popularized for the layperson, Every Creature Has a Story by Janaki Lenin, when I was suddenly brought up short. I looked again. Yes, there was no doubt about it: I'd found an uncanny REsearcher NAme COINcidence (Renacoin)! I was as delighted as a lepidopterist surprised by an unknown butterfly in his backyard.

Photo credits: Goodreads

Here's the specimen I found: "Nosal found that the sharks with stuffed noses eventually found their way to the shore using other cues." After the initial excitement abated, I realized that it was a flawed specimen (a butterfly with a clipped wing): After all, "Nosal" is not a real word. It was a near miss. However, I dug further. It seems "Nosal" is a Polish, Czech, and Slovak surname, originating as a nickname for someone with a big nose (, citing the Dictionary of American Family Names, 2013, Oxford University Press).

Let's revisit that quote. Dr. Nosal conducted research on sharks with stuffed noses. No, we don't mean "stuffy noses." What are stuffed noses? And how did he find sharks with stuffed noses, you ask? Oh, that's easy. He stuffed their noses himself, using petroleum-jelly-soaked cotton wool balls. What, another question?? Fire away! How did the sharks breathe with their noses stuffed in that inhuman manner? Were they humanely sacrificed at the altar of science?? Duh! Sharks don't breathe through their noses. Any more questions? No? I thought not.


Unbelievably, a couple of months later, I spotted another one, a flawless diamond, in The Pursuit of Development by Ian Goldin: "Studies by David Dollar and others found that in 1990, countries with the worst policies received more per capita in terms of ODA than countries with better policies ($44 as opposed to $39); by the late 1990s the situation was reversed: those with better policies received almost twice as much in per capita terms ($28 versus $16)." Perfect!


And it doesn't end there. A few weeks ago, I promoted a long-forgotten and rediscovered-by-accident book in my library from the back rows of the archived shelves to pride of place next to my bed for easy reach: Indian and British English: A Handbook of Usage and Pronunciation by Nihalani, Tongue, and Hosali. Did you spot the Renacoin? Tongue! We have a linguist called Tongue!

So, there you have it. Three Renacoins spotted in the wild over a time span of months. It makes me wonder whether they are so uncommon, after all. They're probably being minted in the wild regularly, and it only takes a motivated prospector to find them. My appetite has been whetted.

A rich source of potential Renacoins passes through my hands daily: reference citations in text and the reference list itself. I look at them with new eyes these days. My vigilance is being rewarded. A.J. Fox has authored a paper on chicken leucocytes: a case of the fox guarding the hen house? M.G. Hawkins has written the chapter on birds in a multi-author book. Hawkey has coauthored a paper on the stress leukogram of raptors. Editing reference lists is no longer drudgery; there's gold hidden there.

I will conclude with a couple of pet peeves: I'm finding it difficult to forgive Dr. R. E. Snodgrass for choosing entomology instead of botany and Dr. Peter Raven for choosing botany instead of ornithology. I admit they must have had solid reasons for their career choices.

Still ...

PS: Of course, name coincidences (Nacoins) also occur outside academia. Here is an example. The Moneymaker effect is named after Chris Moneymaker, an amateur poker player who became the World Champion in 2003, winning the prize of $2.5 million.

And in Meeting the Devil: A Book of Memoir from the London Review of Books, I found this in the piece "The Old Devil and His Wife" by Lorna Sage, to whom I will gladly surrender the last word:

But this was a village where it seemed everybody was their vocation. They didn't just ‘know their place’, it was as though the place occupied them, so that they all knew what they were going to be from the beginning. People's names conspired to colour in this picture. The gravedigger was actually called Mr Downward. The blacksmith who lived by the mere was called Bywater. Even more decidedly, the family who owned the village was called Hanmer, and so was the village.

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