Scientists can be quite elusive when you try to get them for an interview. But some are more elusive than others – those that never existed, like the prolific Alois Kabelschacht…
What do you do if one of the authors on your paper is a total asshole?
For most scientists, that’s probably just a fact of life to get on with. For some, it’s a joke. “Stronzo Bestiale” is co-author of two physics papers from 1987 and, as science writer Vito Tartamella found out recently, the man who’s name means “total asshole” in Italian, has a secret – he doesn’t exist.
Vito Tartamella, an Italian science writer, uncovered Stronzo Bestiale’s secret this October when Tartamella, who had written a book on surnames, decided to investigate the scientist’s rather unusual surname. As Tartamella discovered, several Italians are “assholes”, but a Stronzo Bestiale cannot be found in any phone books of Italy. Tartamella contacted the then Chancellor of the University of Palermo, where Bestiale supposedly worked when publishing the 1987 paper in the Journal of Statistical Physics – to find out that no Stronzo Bestiale existed there at the time. On his sleuth, Tartamella finally contacted one of the other authors of Bestiale’s papers, William G. Hoover, who before retiring worked at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory at the University of California. And so the true story of Stronzo Bestiale came to light: In the 1980s, William G. Hoover developed a new computational technique, called non-equilibrium molecular dynamics. But his papers were rejected by the major physics journals, in his words because they contained “too innovative ideas”. On a plane, he overheard two Italian women talking about “Stronzo bestiale” and “che stronzo (what an asshole)”. When an Italian colleague explained to Hoover what it meant, Hoover decided that “Stronzo Bestiale” would make the ideal co-author for his rejected publications. Hoover changed the title, added Stronzo Bestiale to the list of authors – and the papers were published. And this is how a total asshole made it onto three physics papers.
One of Bestiale’s papers, in the Journal of Statistical Physics, even has 167 citations according to Google Scholar. And the somewhat successful physicist even has a listing on Scopus, a large citation and abstract database for peer-reviewed research literature. Scopus lists Bestiale as researcher at the Institute for Experimental Physics at the University of Vienna, also the affiliation of Bestiale’s second 1987 paper in the Journal of Chemical Physics. Sadly, there is no entry for Stronzo Bestiale in the phone directory of the University of Vienna, and also the Institute for Experimental Physics seems unaware of the ghost researcher residing in its midst.
Stronzo Bestiale is not the only “ghost” who has sneaked into scientific papers. The Max Planck Institute for Physics in Munich has its own prolific fictional researcher, Prof. Alois Kabelschacht. Apparently, in the 1970s, all rooms at the MPI were designated with room number and the name of the researcher working in the office. No research was, however, carried out behind door number 354: this was where the cable duct was hidden. And with German orderliness, the room was duly named “Kabelschacht”, the German term for cable duct. This gave rise to the running gag among employees that, if any problems arise, they could go talk to Mister Kabelschacht. At the MPI, only professors’ nameplates carried their titles, e.g. Prof. Heisenberg. Eventually, also the office of visiting professors were marked with Prof. And over time, employees at the MPI decided that also Mister Kabelschacht deserved a title for being so helpful in their discussion. Eventually, door number 354 carried the plate: “Prof. A. Kabelschacht”. And now that Kabelschacht was professor, MPI members also decided that he should publish papers. Prof. Kabelschacht’s first co-authored paper was with Peter Breitenlohner in 1979 in Nuclear Physics B. This paper was followed by several others, including one written only by Alois Kabelschacht in 1987 on a method now used in the programmin language LaTeX. In contrast to Stronzo Bestiale, Prof Alois Kabelschacht’s research is still going strong: in 2008, “Prof. Alois Kabelschacht” published a paper on high energy physics, again in Nuclear Physics B. And you can befriend Kabelschacht on Facebook, though he’s sadly not been active since 2013.
It’s not just ghost researchers who make it onto the author lists of scientific papers. Andre Geim, one of the 2010 Physics Nobel laureates, famously published a paper together with H.A.M.S.ter Tisha, his hamster. Polly Matzinger, a French immunologist, used Galadriel Mirkwood, her Afghan Hound, as co-author of one of her early publications. According to Ted Anton, author of the book Bold Science, Matzinger did so as she didn’t want to write in the passive voice usual for scientific papers but also felt too insecure to write in the first person “I” as the sole author of the paper. With Galadriel’s help, she got around it, and got to write: “we report here…”.
So, what do you do if one of your co-authors is a total asshole? Maybe check that he isn’t a Sicilian physicist who has been hiding since 1987…
Vito Tartamella’s blog post on Stronzo Bestiale