There's always been humour in science and plenty of it is quite overt. I remember being rather amused and pleased back in the late 90s / early 2000s to get hold of a copy of Bill Christie's Lipid Analysis (2nd edition) in which keen young lipid analysts wishing to analyse the molecular species of a variety of lipids are told that they must "first catch your lipid". I think Mrs Beeton recommended something similar to readers, on preparing fish. And of course xkcd is hilariously brilliant and there are umpteen other science funnies.
Sometimes you have to make your own fun though. The following five PubMed abstracts are ones I re-visit every now and again because they intrigue or amuse me. Four of them I discovered myself and one of them was posted on a mailing list I'm on. A couple of them have also made it into the brilliant NCBI ROFL (National Center for Biotechnology Information - Rolling On the Floor Laughing).
1. Rats in space
I certainly didn't go looking for rats in space - I'd have been searching for lipid extraction from rat brain or possibly rat liver when I came across an abstract indicating that scientists routinely flew rats in space for a couple of weeks before having a look at their metabolism. Unfortunately I can't remember the original paper I saw and I'd probably have to scroll back through pages and pages to get back to the one I found in the late 90s or early 2000s but this one will do fine. It's not hilarious but the incongruous image of rats setting off to space makes me smile. Rats don't have to go into space though, there are microgravity simulators...
The effects of space flights on the lipid composition of blood, adrenal glands and liver in rats
Plenty more where that came from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=rats%20spaceflight (310 by the look of it)
2. You say canine flatus, I say dog farts
Probably I'd have to admit that I was actually searching for farts / dog farts... although that's not the fancy PubMed term and so I was probably searching for flatus when I came across this one from 2001. I've been enjoying it for about 10 years I think (don't think I actually found it in 2001 though, which is when it was published) and I re-read it every year.
Much like Mark Twain's "The Awful German Language*" I've never been able to get through a reading of it without getting quite giggly. The po-faced language, the ridiculousness of measuring the pongitude of dog farts. I believe this one made it into the Ig-Nobel prize winners list.
While farting is an entirely normal and natural thing that everyone does it can actually be pretty debilitating when it's a consequence of a medical problem or medication for the treatment of a medical problem. I've spoken to several people with diabetes (and Diabetes UK's Careline have spoken to many many more) who've found taking some medications prescribed for Type 2 diabetes can lead to highly unamusing farting situations - really not that pleasant. There's also a (fairly rare) condition called gastropathy (damage to the nerves or muscles that control the movement of food through the gut) which in serious cases can lead to faecal incontinence. Not fun. In some people with diabetes this gastropathy can lead to a complication called gastroparesis.
Development of a technique for the in vivo assessment of flatulence in dogs
A few more where that came from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=dog%20flatus
If anyone has a copy of In praise of canine flatulence research I think I'd like to read it.
*"You may load up with ever so good a Verb, but I notice that you never really bring down a subject with it at the present German range -- you only cripple it."
3. Further farting
This is the one I didn't find myself - it came via an email discussion list and I think the topic was on IgNobel prizes and unlikely titles for papers. The title deserves a prize all of its own.
Farting as a defence against unspeakable dread
4. Rabies-infected puppies in the Gambia
This is actually a sad story and doesn't make me laugh very much at all. The subject of the abstract died from rabies so no happy ending but I thought the rhythm of the language used in the first sentence is wonderful. The phrase "it was a dark and stormy night^" has gone down in literary history as being a classic example of purple prose, but in contrast "Seven weeks after he was bitten on the lip by a puppy in the Gambia..." (such precision!) is surely a perfect example of the opposite... while still being just a little bit purpley. Sadly the sentence, rather than building on its wonderful crescendo, comes to a bit of a standstill with "...a patient showed symptoms of rabies." Oh well.
I think it works even better in italics, like go-faster stripes:
Seven weeks after he was bitten on the lip by a puppy in the Gambia...
Human rabies encephalomyelitis
^"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."
5. Startling kittens for science
This one was popular on Twitter as you can imagine. I decided to search PubMed for kittens some time last year (turns out it was 21 Jan 2011) and was delighted with this particular find. It features different types of kittens, spring-loaded boxes and using them to scare the crap (or not - depending on the type of cat) of the kittens. The title I've given this section is how I tweeted it when I first found this abstract.
They analysed kittens' responses to a "potentially threatening object" during an open field test - a 'metal spring enveloped in a cotton case suddenly bouncing out' of a cylinder. It put me in mind of the 'Spring Surprise' in the Monty Python chocolate box sketch. Poor kits.
Breed differences in behavioural response to challenging situations in kittens
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