UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies


You must be joking


This page provides supporting materials for Cain's presentation on jokes and humour in science. 


“You must be joking!” Pranks, Jokes and other Silliness in Science 

by Dr Joe Cain

Every scientific discipline has inside jokes. Why? Dr Joe Cain, historian of biology at UCL, will bridge the gap between science and comedy to tell the amusing story behind one of biology’s most favourite practical jokes, the 'snouters'. He will then consider some of the social functions these pranks have in our communities. Following the talk the audience is invited for a glass of wine at a private view of the Museum. This talk is suitable for adults.

Classic jokes in biology

Classic jokes in biology

Snouters by Harald Stumpke

1961. Bau und Leben der Rhinogradentia. German original
1962. Anatomie et Biologie des Rhinogrades. Un Nouvel Ordre de Mammiferes. French translation
1967. The Snouters. Form and Life of the Rhinogrades. English translation (another edition in 1981)
1992. I Rinogradi e la zoologia fantastica. Italian translation
1997. Hararuto Shutyunpuke (author). Bik¯ori: atarashiku-hakken-sareta-hony¯urui-no-k¯oz¯o-to-seikatsu. Japanese translation



Fotheringham, Augustus C. 1928. Eoörnis pterovelox gobiensis.

2007 facsimile is available from Euston Grove Press.



Papers by Robert Sokal (1983-1984) in Systematic Zoology. 4 parts.

1983. Phylogenetic Analysis of the Caminalcules. I. The Data Base. Systematic Zoology 32(2): 159-184.

1983. Phylogenetic Analysis of the Caminalcules. II. Estimating the True Cladogram. Systematic Zoology 32(2): 185-201.

1983. Phylogenetic Analysis of the Caminalcules. III. Fossils and Classification. Systematic Zoology 32(3): 248-258.

1983. A Phylogenetic Analysis of the Caminalcules. IV. Congruence and Character Stability. Systematic Zoology 32(3): 259-275.



A. M. King, L. Cromarty, C. Paterson, J. S. Boyd. 2007. Applications of ultrasonography in the reproductive management of Dux magnus gentis venteris saginatiThe Veterinary Record160: 94-96. (download


Related articles on humour in science

[I've had an extremely thoughtful e-mail from Wendi Wilkerson, who has taken the time to assemble some relevant literature from folklore studies. I am most appreciative and post it here with her permission.

Dr. Cain,

I attended, and greatly enjoyed, the talk you gave at UCL about jokes and
humor in the scientific community. Here follows the list of works discussing
the social aspects of jokes and joke cycles that I said I would send you. I
would have done so sooner, but I only recently returned to Louisiana, and
have been swamped with jetlag and paperwork.

The Jensen is a good foundational text that introduces the discussion of
jokes as inter-and intra-cultural negotiation. Among other things, he
recognizes the role that "getting" the joke plays as a marker of belonging
and inclusion for a particular group. The Basso foregrounds the role jokes
play in establishing and individual's cultural identity. The Oring is some
of the most recent work done on the subject. The Dundes works are the meat-
and-potatoes of the study of jokelore- "Foolproof: A Sampling of
Mathematical Folk Humor," “The J. A. P. and the J. A. M. in American
Jokelore,” and "Cracking Jokes: Studies of Sick Humor Cycles and
Stereotypes," should be particularly useful in your research.

Hope this helps!


Renteln, Paul and Alan Dundes. “Foolproof: A Sampling of Mathematical Folk
Humor” Notices of the American Mathematical Society Vol. 52, No.1 (January
Can be found online at: www.ams.org/notices/200501/fea-dundes.pdf

Basso, Keith H. Portraits of the Whiteman: Linguistic Play and Cultural
Symbols Among the Western Apache. Cambridge:Cambridge University
Press, 1979.
Drawing on current theory in symbolic anthropology and
sociolinguistics, this interpretive essay investigates a complex form of
joking based on material collected in a Western Apache community wherein
Apaches stage carefully crafted imitations of Anglo-Americans.

Dundes, Alan and Carl Patger. When You're Up To Your Ass In Alligators: More
Urban Folklore from the Paperwork Empire. Detroit: Wayne State
University Press, 1987.
Office copier folklore—those tattered sheets of cartoons, mottoes,
zany poems, defiant sayings, parodies, and crude jokes that regularly
circulate in office buildings everywhere—is the subject of this
innovative study. this type of folklore represents a major form of tradition
in modern America, and the authors have compiled this raw data for
scholarship—and entertainment.

Dundes, Alan. “The J. A. P. and the J. A. M. in American Jokelore.” The
Journal of American Folklore Vol. 98, No. 390. (Oct. - Dec., 1985), pp.

Dundes, Alan. “The Dead Baby Joke Cycle” Western Folklore Vol. 38, No. 3.
(Jul., 1979), pp. 145-157.

Dundes, Alan and Uli Linke. “More on Auschwitz Jokes” Folklore Vol. 99, No.
1. (1988), pp. 3-10.

Dundes, Alan. Cracking Jokes: Studies of Sick Humor Cycles and Stereotypes.
Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1987.

Jansen, William Hugh. “The Esoteric-Exoteric Factor in Folklore.” The Study
of Folklore.” ed. Alan Dundes. Prentice Hall, 1965.
Foundational essay discussing inter and intra cultural humor and

Oring, Elliot. Engaging Humor. Chicago: University of Illinois, 2003.
In Engaging Humor, Elliott Oring asks essential questions concerning
humorous expression in contemporary society, examining how humor works, why
it is employed, and what its messages might be. This provocative book is
filled with examples of jokes and riddles that reveal humor to be a
meaningful--even significant--form of expression.

Wendi D. Wilkerson, UL Department of English/Folklore