“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not ‘Eureka! but ‘That’s funny!'”
In 1875 after years laboring to create the first working telephone, Alexander Graham Bell successfully called Thomas Watson. Watson picked up the receiver and heard Bell ask, “Watson, is your icebox running?” Watson looked at the phone perplexed and then muttered, “Let me check.” Bell hung up and fell onto his bunkbed in a giggle fit. The pre-teen girls at his slumber party were impressed with Bell’s ability to disguise his voice so convincingly and trick someone, especially since there were only two working phones in the world at that time and Watson had one of them. And Bell had the other.
And with that funny prank call, the first working telephone was created.
Louis Pasteur, noted chicken-pesterer and scientist, attempted to kill a group of chickens by injecting them with a batch of cholera. Just as Pasteur was about to do this, his assistant in a hushed voice whispered into the microphone, “we’ve secretly replaced the fine cholera Pasteur usually serves with Folgers Crystals (deadened Cholera flavor). Let’s see if any of the chickens can tell the difference.” The chickens didn’t! And despite the poor quality of the coffee, they remained alive. Pasteur and his assistant, never ones to rest on their laurels, decided to try to the switcheroo with the chickens a second time. This time they secretly replaced the Folgers crystals (deadened cholera flavor) they served with full strength cholera strain. The chickens didn’t notice again! When interviewed later about the incident, a chicken said, “There’s an old saying in Tennessee – I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee – that says, fool me once, shame on – shame on you. Fool me – you can’t get fooled again.” This quote is confusing, but is still pretty good English and logic for a chicken in France.
And with that funny switcheroo, the first vaccine was created.
Around 200 B.C., Archimedes after a hard day of trying to determine the volume of pure gold in a crown took a relaxing bath. In the bath tub he looked at his naked body and made a brilliant discovery. He yelled “I found it.” Something grown men tend not to yell when seeing their own naked bodies, but Archimedes was special. He was so pleased with his discovery that he ran naked through the streets of Syracuse with what he found.
And with that funny streaking, a new way of determining volume was found.
In 1666, Newton walked in his mother’s garden and pondered the relationship of gravity to the earth and also to the moon. Newton, a consummate professional, hit himself in the head with an apple and Voila: Science. (It should be noted that Newton initially was compelled to smash the apple with a hammer and then smash a watermelon causing them to bust, but decided against this when it was determined that the smashing of fruit was in no way funny and therefore could not help further discovery).
And with that funny prop, Newton’s theory of gravity was created.
Isaac Pavlov, the classical conditionist and renowned observational humorist, wasn’t always so funny and such a great scientist. He started out by asking questions like, “Did you ever notice that dogs salivate right before they eat?” and “What’s the deal with bells?” It wasn’t until he combined these questions and improved his comedic timing that he became the scientist he is known for today. Pavlov joined the ranks of scientists the world-over, who struggled and worked hard to hear the words “That’s funny!” and humanity is better for it.
As you read this, please reflect on the role these scientists have played in the world and consider donating money this holiday season to laboratories or nonprofits that further scientific research, specifically my charity, “The Institute for Pulling My Finger.”