What Do You Call a Guy Who Cuts Apart Peeps?
'Doctor,' in the world of Weird Science
The idea for the unusual set of experiments came to the scientists at a dinner party. There were certain libations, of course, and then: "Sugar," says Gary Falcon, a computer systems administrator at Emory University in Atlanta. "I would say this project started with a lot of sugar."
Sundaes, to be more specific, and a dearth of marshmallows to put on top of them. But Falcon and Jim Zimring, a pathology resident at Emory University Hospital, were undeterred. Investigation of the Falcon kitchen turned up an intriguing substitute: several small yellow, pink, and purple Easter candy chicks, or Peeps.
Scientific curiosity came next: "We wanted to know what these things were made of," says Falcon. They tried to melt them in a microwave, dissolve them in water, then corrode them in acid. But the Peeps did not behave like ordinary marshmallows. "We discovered that the eyes wouldn't dissolve in anything," says Zimring.
Thus began the Peep Studies, now in their fourth year. Falcon and Zimring have investigated the devastating effects of smoking and alcohol on Peeps. Last year, they attempted the first Peep surgery, the miracle separation of Peep quintuplets, joined at the wings. But Peep research has its limitations. "Peeps are a seasonal organism," Zimring explains. "We've had great difficulty getting all of our work done when Peeps are available, and we've not been able to alter the gestational rate."
The gestational rate of Easter candy? Are these scientists mad?
Absolutely. Falcon and Zimring represent one branch of the largely unheralded field of Weird Science. Weird Science is what very smart people do to have fun: It's scientific satire, more akin to Saturday Night Live than Nova. Accounts of these wacky research projects are available on the Web, a medium particularly favored by Weird Scientists, many of whom teach at universities and have access to sophisticated computers.
Noble pursuits? But Weird Science also has its own print outlets, the Journal of Irreproducible Results and the Annals of Improbable Research. AIR's cofounder and editor is Marc Abrahams, who last week announced the winners of the Ig Nobel Prizes, an annual competition that salutes scientific research that "cannot and should not be reproduced." Honored last week at a gala at Harvard's Sanders Theater, this year's Ig Nobelists include Dr. Len Fisher of England, for calculating the optimal way to dunk a tea biscuit; Dr. Arvid Vatle of Norway, who classified and contemplated the variety of containers his patients chose when submitting urine samples; and Hyuk-ho Kwon of Korea, for inventing the first self-perfuming business suit. Kwon not only flew to Boston to accept the award, he also presented self-perfuming business suits to each of the real Nobel Laureates who participated (a few show up each year to sing, dance, and present the awards).
Some of the finest Weird Science appears in the pages of AIR itself, however. Few accounts surpass the AIR classic "The Taxonomy of Barney" by Edward C. Theriot, Arthur E. Bogan, and Earle E. Spamer. "In February 1994, we observed on television an animal that was there identified as a dinosaur, Barney," they write. "Its behavioral characteristics suggested that it was dissimilar to the diverse dinosaurian faunas that are so well documented." The authors go on to describe their field experiments at a shopping center where a Barney specimen was appearing, their capture of Barney's skeletal structure on X-ray, the careful computer analysis of Barney's physiognomy, and their conclusion: "Barney is not a dinosaur. It is a hitherto unknown member of the Family Hominidae, which we name Pretendosaurus barneyi."
Peep research has not yet achieved the prominence of "The Taxonomy of Barney," nor has it been published in any scientific journal. "Scientific research has to be peer reviewed," notes Zimring, "and we really don't know of other people working in this field." Still, they're already planning their next experiment: "The effects of aging on Peeps in space." Says Falcon: "We were inspired by John Glenn."
For more Weird Science, see U.S. News Online (http://www.usnews.com).
This story appears in the October 11, 1999 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.