Why the U.K. Research Vessel 'Boaty McBoatface' Should Be Allowed to Sail

Scientists have always been able to take a joke. Why can't British science minister Jo Johnson?

As far as ship names go, few things can top Boaty McBoatface. The British public couldn’t have agreed more:

“Boaty McBoatface is the overwhelming winner in a public vote to name a £200 [million] ship,” the BBC announced over the weekend on its Twitter account.

Too bad the nation’s science minister Jo Johnson wasn’t having it: He scrapped plans to let the public name a new multimillion-dollar polar exploration ship after the humorous name won a public poll with 120,000 votes, arguing that it didn’t fit “the mission and scientific endeavour of the boat.”

But Johnson’s got his science history all wrong: what he doesn’t realize is that by naming the ship Boaty McBoatface, he’d be paying homage to a proud scientific tradition of applying silly names to serious things.

Biologists, for one, have a long legacy of applying goofy names to their scientific discoveries. There’s an entire genus of mites called Darthvaderum. And there’s a particularly bottom-heavy horsefly known as Scaptia Beyonce. Sometimes, scientists scrap the cultural pegs altogether and come up with comedic names for comedy’s sake: Take, for example, the often-ingested fly species Pieza rhea, Pieza pi, and Pieza kake. Or the Casablanca-inspired fly Heerz lukenatcha and its relative Heerz tooya.

That’s not to say biologists are the only scientists with a sense of humor. One of the longest-running inside jokes among scientists is to reference Bob Dylan song titles and lyrics in otherwise bone-dry academic papers. Last year, a research article published in the Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal — which is itself noted for its serious reserach on “gag” topics every year (previous years included studies on how much James Bond drinks and why Rudolph’s nose is red) — reported that the number of Dylan references in scientific journals has increased “exponentially” since 1990; by the end of 2015, there were 727 documented references to old Zimmy’s work in biomedical literature alone.

Nothing about these gags took away from the importance of the work. “Blood on the tracks: a simple twist of fate?” explored the idea that neurons could be generated from blood cells, and similarly, “Like a rolling histone” delved into the control of gene expression in the human brain. Darthvaderum mites were discovered to be key parts of the Eastern Australian arboreal ecosystem.

Finding humor in a thing and making fun of it are two very different pursuits, and science rarely provides opportunities to do the latter. But the inherent seriousness of the field makes it crucial that we allow for the former. This is the point the Hungarian satirist László Feleki was trying to make in his essay “Keeping Up with Science,” penned in 1969. Humor in science, he argued, is a necessary cultural defense mechanism against the impressive — and overwhelming — amount of progress being made in the science realm.

Our life has become so mechanized and electronified that one needs some kind of an elixir to make it bearable at all. And what is this elixir if not humor? It is decisive for the present and future of mankind whether humor and science can keep in step…

Scientists, for the most part, have embraced this message. And it would probably do Johnson good to do the same. After all, science is unapproachable enough as it is, and stripping the joy out of it isn’t going to make it easier to win over the public’s respect, especially when it comes to convincing them that a $300 million polar research vessel is worth their attention.

Giving them a sense of involvement — and something to smile about — will. Whether or not she ever leaves port, Boaty McBoatface deserves to sail.

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