The true story of Stronzo Bestiale (and other scientific jokes)

stronzoWould you read a paper written by Stronzo Bestiale (Total Asshole)? A dose of mistrust would be justified: the name says it all. Yet, in 1987, professor Bestiale, supposedly a physicist in Palermo, Sicily, authored major papers in prestigious scientific peer reviewed journals such as the  Journal of Statistical Physics, the Journal of Chemical Physics and the proceedings of a meeting of American Physical Society in Monterey.

Given that surnames always intrigued me (they are the subject of my first book), I tried to find this person in Italian telephone directories. In Italy there are 7 Bestiale, mostly in Piedmont. None of them, however, has the name Stronzo (Turd or a Asshole: who would call their own son that?); between the Veneto and Trentino-Alto Adige there are 4 Stronziero, but this is also a surname.

In fact, Stronzo Bestiale does not exist as confirmed, when those scientific papers were published 27 years ago, by the then Chancellor of the University of Palermo, Ignazio Melisenda Giambertoni (another unusual surname!).

So I decided to investigate more thoroughly. The self-styled Bestiale appears in the papers authored by Bill Moran and William G. Hoover, two influential American scientists from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. In particular, Bestiale appears in various documents authored by Hoover, who also cited him at the end of a very serious physics paper, saying that “discussions with him were very useful.”

William G. Hoover

William G. Hoover

I wrote to professor Hoover, now retired, to ask him the true story of Stronzo Bestiale. Here’s what he said. «At that time» he says «we were very active in the development of a new computational technique, non-equilibrium molecular dynamics, connecting fractal geometry, irreversibility and the second law of thermodynamics. The idea was born during meetings at CECAM (Centre Européen de Calcul Atomique et Moléculaire) in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the Enrico Fermi summer school organized at Lake Como with Giovanni Ciccotti, professor of condensed matter physics at the University La Sapienza University in Rome. In these meetings, the theoretical picture of this technique was clear to me, so I wrote several papers on the subject along with some colleagues. But the reviewers of Physical Review Letters and the Journal of Statistical Physics refused to publish my texts: they contained too innovative ideas».

This is nothing new: new discoveries in science are hard to publish because scientists are rather conservative, as discussed by the epistemologist Thomas Kuhn. Meanwhile, Hoover continues, «while I was traveling on a flight to Paris, next to me were two Italian women who spoke among themselves, saying continually: “Che stronzo (what an asshole)!”, “Stronzo bestiale (total asshole)”. Those phrases had stuck in my mind. So, during a CECAM meeting, I asked Ciccotti what they meant. When he explained it to me, I thought that Stronzo Bestiale would have been the perfect co-author for a refused publication. So I decided to submit my papers again, simply by changing the title and adding the name of that author. And the researches were published».

In short, a pointed joke. Not everyone took it well, at the time: the President of the Italian Physical Society, Professor Renato Angelo Ricci said, «This joke is an offense to the entire Italian scientific community». In reality, though, it laid bare how vulnerable control systems in the review of scientific research were (and still are!) . If you are able to insert in a publication the name of a nonexistent author in a publication, who will guarantee that even the scientific contents have been examined with care? Incredibly, even today, 27 years later, Stronzo Bestiale continues to be present as the author of publications in scientific databases: is it not extraordinary?

merdaBut Stronzo Bestiale is not the only dirty word published in international scientific journals. More recently, in 2003, the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology published a study on the MERDA (shit) value”, which stands for Missing Entry Replacement Data Analysis, a technique for phylogenetic reconstruction in paleontology.
Was this an embarrassing coincidence that the authors realized only after the fact? Far from it!

Ward Wheeler

Ward Wheeler

I asked one of the authors, Ward C. Wheeler, of the division of invertebrate zoology at the American Museum of Natural History for clarification. And he revealed that they knew very well the meaning of “merda” from Catalan: not Italian, but it makes no difference … «We chose that acronym on purpose, to highlight the poor quality of incomplete groups of data. It was a amusing acronym. The procedure, which in the meantime has been further developed, it is still used for the analysis of incomplete fossils samples».

So, scientists do have sense of humor. Fortunately. As for people with vulgar surnames they do exist. In Italy there are thousands. I will tell their stories in the next post.                                                                             [click here for italian version ]

UPDATE #1: my collegue Fabio Turone, president of SWIM (Science Writers in Italy, an association of science journalists) sent me the profile of Stronzo Bestiale from Scopus, an international bibliographic and bibliometric database (see screenshot below). In Scopus, professor Stronzo Bestiale appears to be working at the Institute of Experimental Physics, at the University of Vienna, the institutional affiliation attributed to him in the paper published by the Journal of chemical physics. One more point on his résumé!

Stronzo Bestiale - Scopus Author search

UPDATE #2: italian research also has had a funny episode with dirty words. Some readers of this blog report a Prin (Research project of relevant national interest), presented in 2011 by researchers from INFN and University of Torino. It was a virtual analysis system for the LHC particle accelerator at CERN in Geneva. The acronym of the system was Vaffa (an abbreviation of vaffanculo, fuck off): Virtual Analysis Facility For the Alice experiment. The project, which you can read about here, was not approved.


fica2UPDATE #3: a reader of this blog, Ugo Finardi, points out antenna FICA (acronym of Folded Inverted Conformal Antenna): in italian, FICA means cunt. It’s not a coincidence, because this antenna was invented by an Italian couple of engineers who, at the time, worked in the research laboratories of Motorola in the United States, Carlo Di Nallo and Antonio Faraone. The invention has been presented in 2005 at the international symposium of the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers).


UPDATE #4: the funny story of Stronzo Bestiale had an international resonance. It’s cited by american blog RetractionWatch, an observatory of retractions and corrections in scientific papers, edited by Ivan Oransky, professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine and editorial director of MedPage Today. Oransky recalls a similar case: the immunologist Polly Matzinger, who in 1978 published a study co-authored by entering Galadriel Mirkwood: the name of her afghan hound. It was a way to protest against the use of passive voice in scientific papers (it was discovered that …”).


fuckOKOKUPDATE #5: the Hartree-Fock method is a procedure in computational physics, which is used to simulate quantum systems. It is named by its discoverers Douglas Hartree and Vladimir Fock. The latter is a Russian physicist with a surname that, in English, is likely to be crippled so vulgar (fuck). And in fact, their method – at a distance of 46 years after the paper that this discovery has become Hartree-Fuck in Springer publisher’s website (click image to enlarge). And if you type in GoogleHartree-Fuck Springer”, you will get different results mentioning Fuck in the title. Difficult to determine whether it was a mistake or a joke. Or a way to get more clicks on the Web (even by those who make mistakes typing the name)?


cuntBintUPDATE #6: a reader of this blog, Andrew White, points out two other vulgar acronyms, contained in a 2007 survey on the electrochemical synthesis of nanotubes: BINT (Bismuth nanotubes, nanorods of bismuth) and CUNT (Cu stands for copper: click image to enlarge).  Since this is a research written by Chinese authors, it was almost certainly an accident. But it seems that among chemists had a considerable popularity.


UPDATE #7: professor Mark Liberman, linguist at Pennsylvania University, points out many papers signed Connard (in French, connard means shithead). I checked if one of the most prolific authors, a geologist from Oregon, Gerald G. Connard, really exists: in telephone directories he is present, and probably others. Moreover, people with a vulgar surname are many: among them there must be some scientist!


tshirtUPDATE #8: this morning I discovered that a Us company, Albany Retro Snarky T-Shirts, created a T-shirt about this story, with the inscription “I’m friends with Stronzo Bestiale“. The catch-phrase: “The super funny T-shirt for any scientist!”. Perhaps professor Hoover and me should ask the royalties on this business… 🙂


UPDATE #9: the Improbable Research organization has re-launched on its website  the Stronzo Bestiale story (under “improbable investigators”). Maybe one day prof. Bestiale could win an IgNobel: after a so long carrer, he’d deserve it! Do we candidate him?


science2UPDATE #9: Stronzo Bestiale’s story has been reported on Science website.






editors-note-apology_blueUPDATE #10: also “Scientific american” website tells the Stronzo Bestiale story for the april fool day. The author, Philip Yam, also found a backstory: after the article by Hoover was published, the production editor of the Journal of Statistical Physics, Jim Langlois, received a call from an italian journalist, who asked explanations for this unusual author. And he also explained the meaning of “stronzo bestiale” in Italian. So the joke came to light: in the next issue, the editor Joel Lebowitz wrote an article of apology: “It has come to my attention that the name given as the third author in the paper is a rather obscene expression in Italian. I apologize to the readers for not catching this stupidiy of the other two authors. “

UPDATE #11: two false profiles of Stronzo Bestiale have been published on Linkedin: one is the “head of quantitative analysis” at a London betting syndicate, the other is a self-styled student from Romagna (Italy) at the University of Leiden. Both have no follower: but their existence testifies that the myth of prof. Bestiale remains alive … even in the professional field!

UPDATE #12: Stronzo Bestiale reappeared in a new research published in 2017 on the burst-coin.org website. It’s called “The burst Dymaxion” and talks about cryptocurrencies. Among the authors there is a certain Robert Stadler, who qualifies as a member of the Stronzo Bestiale Institute of Technology, obviously non-existent. And Stadler is also likely to be a pseudonym, given that on the Web the only Stadler that is mentioned is an Austrian designer who has nothing to do with cryptocurrencies. In short, a fake name of a very false institution: among researchers dealing with digital currencies, anonymity is quite common. And in this case there is a note of mocking. [thanks to the biologist Claudio Tiecher who reported it].

UPDATE #13: the story of Stronzo Bestiale has been cited on 3 papers dedicated to the “dark side” of science, or to errors or frauds (or jokes, as in this case) that can be conveyed through scientific papers, despite the referee checks. The first study is by Ernesto Carafoli, of the Institute of Molecular Medicine of Padua, and it is intitled “Scientific misconduct: the dark side of science” (2015). The second is by Marta Brunelli, from the Department of Educational Sciences at the University of Macerata, and it is intitled “To peer review or not to peer review? Ovvero: come sopravvivere alle procedure di referaggio” (2015). The third is a study by Samuel Moore et al. (Kings College, London) entitled: “Excellence R Us: university research and the fetishisation of excellence” (2017).

UPDATE #14: a Spanish band, Sin Arreglo, has launched a crowdfunding to finance the recording of a record entitled “Stronzo bestiale”. An explicit tribute to the story told by this blog. The record was published in 2020: “Stronzo bestiale” is also a song (an instrumental one). You can hear it on YouTube.

Did you like Stronzo Bestiale story? Here you can read a new, true one: dr. Fuck & Fuck, and their patient (a bitch, obvious).


coverHere the international Press Review on this story (articles in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Polish, Russian, Chinese, Creole, Italian).







[ audio ] CHILE, radio Cooperativa (14/10/2014):

Todo es Cierto: Los artículos científicos de Stronzo Bestiale

En Lo que Queda del Día de Cooperativa Paula Molina conversó con el dramaturgo Andrés Kalawski, quien habló sobre los documentos científicos de Stronzo Bestiale y sus coautores.




[ audio ] BBC radio 4, Inside Science (6/11/2014): from minute 21


Thanks to Sara Scharf for the precious help in reviewing my translation.

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  1. I would add to the story another strange case in scientific publishing. I don’t know why but the symbol for a long “-” in the Web Of Science search engine is often substitued bye the phrase “Symbol of the Klingon Empire” with very funny results like: “Effect of reaction conditions on supercritical hexanes mediated higher alcohol synthesis over a Cu Symbol of the Klingon Empire Co Symbol of the Klingon Empire Zn catalyst”

  2. Copper Nitrate is often abbreviated to CuNT in many papers. I’m sure the alternate meaning has not escaped the attention of the authors.

  3. A Swedish university publishes their Central Reports on Sociology in an online repository. The path to the reports, chosen by some engineer, was CRAP (“Report” in Swedish = “Rapport”). I called the head of the department to inform him that this is perhaps a mean joke, but he didn’t get what I was saying at all. After trying 3 different ways to get him to understand, I gave up. CRAP indeed.

  4. How about the journal abbreviation “Anal Chem”? Those chemists do have a wicked sense of humor (or they are really ‘anal’, I suppose)

  5. There is also the paper by Hetherington and Willard on exchange effects in liquid helium-3. Willard was Hetherington’s cat. Supposedly Hetherington was all set to submit his single-author manuscript when a colleague told him that Phys Rev Lett would frown on his use of “we”, so he added his cat as co-author.

  6. There is always a lot of fun when bringing up the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)” in talks.

  7. You might be interested in searching for the CRAPOLA model of “non-sequential ionisation of multi-electron atoms”

  8. Nucleotide sequence analysis of the accessory genes of HIV-1 groupO isolates
    Alejandro Vallejo a,*, Lutz Gurtler b, Leopold Zekeng c, Indira K. Hewlett

    We thank Dr Lucas Grijander for his valuable comments.

    Lucas Grijander was a character created by humorist Florentino Fernandez.

  9. Not the same thing because these are real authors, but the names of the creators of the first artificial neural network, McCulloch and Pitts, in the Catalan language sound like ass (cul) and boobs (pits).

  10. During the postgrad work I encountered the following paper:

    This was a seminal paper in the field, I knew one of the authors, and had seen much work by another, but the last, “T.I.A Fudge”, had seemingly never published anything else. This surprised me, given the import of the work, so I chased down the author I knew and asked him about this mystery contributor. Turned out, They had a really sound theory, except for a constant factor they couldn’t account for (at the time – they subsequently were able to refine the theory). To explain this in the short term they brought in the Fudge Factor, accredited to TIA, better known as “This Is A”. Hence “This Is A Fudge” is the third author, who never reappeared formally – though often informally – in academia.

  11. The recent article “Contribution to the knowledge of Afrotropical Rutelinae III” by P. Limbourg [Belgian Journal of Entomology 17 : 1-33 (2014)] gives the name “adoretus constanti” to a new species, remarking that this name is “dedicated to my fucking bastard colleague Jérôme Constant”. I would be curious to find out why…

  12. I would submit the paper
    “W.H. Knox, R.S. Knox, J.F. Hoose and R.N. Zare, “Observation of the 0 fs pulse” Optics and Photonics News, April 1, 1990,”

    Which is mostly comedic, but is written as if it were not and has all real authors.

  13. Just to add that Merda means shit in portuguese too (not only Catalan and Italian).

  14. There is also the famous “fuck fuck bitch”, which, if typed into pubmed, reveals a paper with two authors named “Fuck” and a paper title contained the word “bitch”…

  15. As someone with a real anatomical name–but one distorted by immigration officials in the 1800s, I can sympathize with those whose names have taken on vulgar meanings. This was also the case about a decase ago when suburban Philadelphia’s Beaver College changed its name to Acadia University. Originally, it was located in Beaver County, Pennsylvania.h

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