ROFL at Science? Blog Brings Out Funny Side of Science

A 15-year-old African girl got pregnant, despite having no vagina. She reported having oral sex with her boyfriend, and doctors surmised the pregnancy occurred through her gastrointestinal tract.

After a British woman suffered from a fever and a phlegm-laden cough for more than six months, doctors in the United Kingdom discovered she swallowed a condom.

Doctors at a Turkish hospital had difficulty treating a man with multiple injuries after a motor vehicle accident because the accident involved a truck carrying paint, and the victim was covered in brightly colored paint.

Hearing about these unusual medical cases may cause many people to react with shock or a chuckle, and that's exactly the idea behind the blog in which they appear.

NCBI ROFL is a blog created early last year by Meredith Carpenter and Lillian Fritz-Laylin, who were graduate students in molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley.

In addition to medical mysteries, the blog features the abstracts of scientific studies that make the women laugh. NCBI is the National Clearinghouse for Biotechnology Information, a government-funded resource for information on molecular biology. It features a number of databases, such as PubMed, where many of the studies come from. ROFL is an Internet acronym for "rolling on floor laughing."

"We just saw some funny papers, and people were e-mailing them around, and we thought it would be great to have a repository for that kind of stuff," said Fritz-Laylin, who is now a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California, San Francisco.

The blog, which Carpenter and Fritz-Laylin say gets about 50,000 page views a month, is similar in concept to Improbable Research, the organization that awards the Ig Nobel Prize every year to a scientific achievement that is both humorous and thought-provoking. The main difference, Carpenter and Fritz-Laylin say, is that NCBI ROFL highlights studies more regularly.

While the studies the blog features have all been published in scientific journals and may seem humorous or odd even to some scientists, Carpenter and Fritz-Laylin say it's important to point out that many of them do have value.

"Some studies that sound funny do have a valid purpose in a specific field that may not be obvious to an outsider looking in," Carpenter said.

Fritz-Laylin pointed out one study in particular: A group of scientists wanted to find out what happens to human feet after they are run over by cars.

"They took a bunch of feet from cadavers, put them in shoes and rolled over them," Fritz-Laylin said. "It's useful to find out about that, but it's mind-boggling to imagine them setting it up."

Other studies may be important to people in a very specific niche. Marc Abrahams, editor and co-founder of the magazine Annals of Improbable Research, recalls one study that was very important to a specific sector of the British economy.

This study looked at courtship behavior in ostriches on farms, and found that rather than expressing amorous interest in other ostriches, the birds were attracted to the farmers.

"This was very important to ostrich farmers, who hoped to make a lot of money from ostrich meat, but didn't after they discovered their birds weren't reproducing and didn't know why," Abrahams said.

As for unusual medical case studies, Abrahams said doctors often encounter bizarre findings and just have to share their stories.

"A lot of them end up getting written up because there was such a great and loopy story that the doctor couldn't resist telling colleagues," he said. "Medical journals will publish them because most of the other stuff is pretty dull."

Not All Studies are Government Funded

In the 1970s and 1980s, Sen. William Proxmire, D-Wis., began issuing his famous Golden Fleece Awards to organizations and agencies that conducted what he considered dubious scientific research.

Abrahams said because many scientific studies, like the ostrich courtship research, are very valuable to people in specific fields, Proxmire should have looked into the research more closely before he criticized it.

"People think that because it's funny, then it must be ridiculed. Many of the studies he ridiculed didn't deserve it," Abrahams said.

Carpenter and Fritz-Laylin said that not all research is government-funded.

"A lot of people assume research is being funded by taxpayers, which is not always true," said Carpenter."

"There's a journal called Medical Hypotheses, and in that journal, people just write crazy ideas," Fritz-Laylin said. "You can have a paper that's not funded at all. It's just somebody thinking."

"Even if studies use government money, a lot of times they were doing some kind of experiment and they happened to notice an unusual thing and wrote it up," Abrahams said.

From Ig Nobel to Nobel

Andre Geim, a Russian physicist who won a Nobel Prize this year for his co-discovery of graphene, the thinnest material in the world and also considered one of the hardest and strongest, also won an Ig Nobel Prize in 2000 for using magnets to levitate a frog.

"He showed that magnets have a lot more value than people originally thought," Abrahams said. "He wanted to attract attention because people think magnets are dull."

Abrahams said that scientists offered the Ig Nobel Prize have the chance to decline the honor, though many do not, because they eventually see the humor in their research.

Another blog that Carpenter and Fritz-Laylin started, Pwned Experiments, offers further proof that scientists aren't always dull.

They post photos of experiments that went wrong, submitted by the scientists themselves.

"When experiments go awry, some of them are pretty visual and pretty funny," Fritz-Laylin said.