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Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science

If Science Were an Olympic Sport


By Duncan Hull

A fictional scene from the future: The Olympic games, London 2012. A new candidate sport is on trial, joining skateboarding, rugby and golf at their debut Olympic games. It is challenging discipline called Science, a sport more ancient than Olympia itself. The crowd awaits eagerly in the all new Boris Johnson Olympic stadium. It has taken more than 2000 years just to convince the International Olympic Committee that Science is worthy of being an Olympic sport. The big day has finally arrived but the judges are still arguing about how to award the medals to scientists. Despite all the metrics involved, it’s all very subjective. The games go ahead anyway, and there are lots of exciting new events:

Triple‑jump grant‑writing
A massive run‑up, then a big hop, huge step, followed by a colossal jump. Longest triple‑jump wins all the grant money from the funding body.

Experiment wrestling and judo
Contestants wrestle and fight with poorly understood but state‑of‑the‑art technology in order to test hypotheses and perform experiments.  

Only the most determined contestants get results, the winner is the person with the most interesting discoveries.

Impact factor boxing
A barbarically macho, gruesome and bloody event. Competing scientists try to publish in the journal with the highest impact factor but of dubious real value. This event often has many casualties and opponents are often beaten until they are unconcious, fall over, or even die. Publishers usually win this event, rather than scientists.  

Closely related to citation gymnastics where the scientist with the largest h‑index wins.

Invention javelin

Contestants try to invent the sharpest new things at the cutting edge of science and technology. Best invention is judged to be the longest throw of the invention javelin.

The 200 m peer‑review hurdles
Contestants have to run as fast as they can clearing all the hurdles laid down by their peers and publishers. First to cross the finishing line wins the publication.

The lonely long‑distance marathon research run
Scientists develop expertise by running a single course for several years or even decades. Trainee scientists are recruited by running a special marathon called a PhD or DPhil. Any competitors left standing after the allotted time are given the title “Doctor,” for passing the gruelling initiation and endurance test.

Presentation fencing
Contestants publicly present their work to other scientists and colleagues often using a blunt instrument called “PowerPoint,” and opponents seek weak points in presentation using sharp instruments.Touché!

Student shot put
Contestants throw cumbersome, heavy, and almost inanimate objects (called “students”) as far as they can. The winner is the person who can throw a student the furthest.

Weightlifting with citations
Contestants write long review papers. The person who can cite the most papers in a single publication wins. Current world‑record  unknown but 2,184 references in a single paper is a pretty high score. If you’ve ever written a scientific paper, what is your “personal best?”

The multi‑disciplinary decathlon professorship
A real test of a wide range of abilities, combining all of the above with another team event called laboratory football management, into a single contest. Winner is the professor with the most points accumulated during the contest.

Will Olympic Science be entertaining to watch? Or just painful? Will anyone be able to agree on what constitutes a good result, let alone a medal? Will America and China win all the medals or will smaller countries still claim glory? Tune in to the London 2012 Olympics to find out.

Duncan Hull is a postdoctoral research associate in biosciences and bioinformatics at the University of Manchester in England. The above originally appeared on his blog, O’Really. Duncan Hull's blog.

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