The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

In 1977, N. S. Haile of the University of Malaya published a brilliant parody of scientific publication (and the thankless task of refereeing) in the grand-daddy of scientific journals, Nature.

I read this article years ago, and recently was reminded of it entirely tangentially, when I came across a piece that discussed the real persona behind Ozymandias, Shelley's King of Kings. A brief search on Google revealed Haile's original work - Preparing Scientific Papers - in its full splendour.

He starts off by noting that young scientists submit papers for publication in unacceptable form...By a lucky chance (and completely legally) I was able to obtain a copy of such a manuscript with the referees' comments and a model rewritten version, from the editorial files of a leading geological journal.

The submitted manuscript was submitted as below (with superscripts indicating comments by the anonymous referees).


Ozymandias1 by P B Shelley2

I met a traveller2 from an antique land3
Who said: Two4 vast5 and trunkless legs6 of stone7
Stand in the desert.8 Near them,9 on the sand,10
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;11
And on the pedestal12 these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my works. Ye Mighty, and despair!'13
Nothing beside remains.14 Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless15 and bare
The lone and level sands16 stretch far away.

The referees comments appeared immediately thereafter.

1 This title is quite inadequate. Includes no keywords. See suggestion below.
2Since this paper appears to be based on field observations by another geologist, we suggest joint authorship would be appropriate.
4This is the only quantitative statement!
5Not specific enough. The authors should give dimensions in SI units. (Unless 'vast' is a class in some sort of grade-scale, in which case the reference to this scale should be given.)
6Have alternative hypotheses been considered? Earth pillars? Basalt columns? Ant hills?
7Surely identification of rock type with appropriate analyses could be provided here?
8Give co-ordinates.
9Specify distance. A photograph (giving scale) would help here.
10Give granulometric analysis, and preferably some scanning electron microscope photographs of grain-surface textures. These don't actually prove anything, but are decorative and keep SEM operatives in employment.
11This fanciful and speculative section could well be omitted.
12This is the first we have heard of a pedestal!
13While it may be worthwhile to record the defacement of an interesting exposure, it is not necessary to quote the words. (Since they are in English, they are obviously of no archaeological interest. Presumably graffiti sprayed on by a tourist.)
14Rather dogmatic. Better: 'No other rock exposures were observed.'
15Inaproppriate hyperbole. The approximate extent of the desert should be stated, if relevant.
16Unless this is a windless desert, surely a sandy desert should show dune formation? If actually level, perhaps in fact it is a stony desert?

The referees point out that the paper is far too short, and ignores any plate tectonics! They suggest then a more acceptable format for its presentation. It is hilariously technical, starting off with an understated title:

Twin limb-like basalt columns ('trunkless legs') near Wadi Al-Fazar and their relationship to plate tectonics.
Ibn Batuta and P B Shelley.

And it goes on to make scientific 'valid' assertions:

"...the first author observed two stone leg-like columns 14.7 m high by 1.8 m in diameter (medium vast, ASTM grade-scale for trunkless legs) rising from sandy desert 12.5 km southwest of Wadi Al-Fazar (Grid 474 753). The rock is tholeiitic basalt (table 1); 45 analyses by neutron activation technique show that it is much the same as any other tholeiitic basalt (table 2)."

"...Four hundred and seventy two scanning electron photomicrographs were taken of sand grains and forty are reproduced here; it is obvious from a glance that the grains have been derived from pre-cambrian anorthosite and have undergone four major glaciations, two subductions, and a prolonged dry spell. One grain shows unique lozenge-shaped impact pits and heart-like etching patterns which prove that it spent some time in upstate New York."

.. and so on.

Hats off, Mr Haine!


Robert said...

Do you have a cached copy of that PDF? I wanted to have a look but the refenced copy won't open for me.

This is a very interesting post, btw. :)

Fëanor said...

Hi Robert: welcome, and thanks for the comment. I don't have an electronic version of the paper, I'm afraid - I had an old, old photocopy from about fifteen years ago when I saw that article for the first time. Sorry!

Jim Birch said...

Thanks for posting this. I saw a reference to Ozymandias and remembered having a good laugh with some geology students about 30 years ago! It's been in my head ever since. Brilliant.

Now to track down a copy. I might have an old photocopy myself somewhere.


Jim Birch said...

Original reprinted here:

Fëanor said...

Thanks for that, Jim. Good fun, eh?

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