Science Humor: Anti-Inspirational Posters

“I was learning for the first time about all the gremlins that stand between the researcher and The Answer.”

One of Will Walker's demotivational posters for scientists (Will Walker)

We’re big fans of science humor here at Surprising Science HQ. Some of the funniest, most innovative new comics have a science angle, whether it’s dinosaur spokescharacters, grad students toiling in a lab or stick figures with sophisticated math skills. We keep this poster in our time machine, earn our badges, celebrate the IgNobel Prize winners and encourage educators to teach the controversy. And, of course, although it’s a non-denominational blog, we’re Pastafarians at heart.

One of my favorite new (to me) examples of humor as a form of release from scientific tension comes from Will Walker, now a post-doc at the McLaughlin Research Institute for the Biomedical Sciences in Montana. He has a series of mock-motivational posters that capture the absurdity of lab work. (They’re akin to the “Demotivators” from Despair, Inc. that you may be familiar with. My favorite is a photo of a sinking ship titled: “MISTAKES. It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.”) Here’s where Will’s poster inspiration came from:

I was in the throes of my dissertation research at Cornell University. As a baby scientist, I was super excited to test a great idea I thought I’d had, but I was learning for the first time about all the gremlins that stand between the researcher and The Answer. It’s just the nature of science, really: since you’re trying to extend the boundary of the known, there’s necessarily a lot of inefficient fumbling around with things you barely understand. Still, troubleshooting all the problems that pop up at the lab bench can feel like fighting a multi-headed hydra of experiment failure, so you have to find ways to manage your frustration during the rough patches. There’s no class in grad school to teach you this, but it’s a huge part of the mental equipment you end up acquiring. The posters were part of a conscious effort to maintain a little space for humor between me and my frustrations: I found it was easier to keep banging my head against the wall if I could do it with a modicum of ironic detachment. (An earlier part of my self-prescribed frustration therapy was to buy a sledgehammer and a pile of cinder blocks to smash, but that got expensive after a while. Making posters was cheaper!)

What are your own favorite science humor sites? Please share them in the comments.


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