If I were a cartoonist

From 2001... Plus ca change... (PS Click cartoon for slightly better image)

In which Dr Aust wishes he could draw, and muses on the changing appearance of the British “-ologist”.

A recent conversation with one of my twitter readers, postdoctoral researcher, occasional blogger and one-time co-worker dbaptista, chanced upon the topic of cartoons.

Dr Aust has always been fond of cartoons, and I have (another)  long backburner-ed book idea involving a compilation of scientific ones. Sadly, my favourite modern cartoonist, the inimitably black / bleak John Callahan, passed away last year, but his cartoons are still with us, and many remain all-time classics. Though I can’t find it online, a series he did on ‘The Hill of Evolution’ stand out for me. Perhaps I will post a couple here if I can find them in book form.

Callahan’s special gift was to offend pretty much everybody. He once quipped about what happened when he started cartoon-ing:

“Very shortly I was to be identified as a sexist, racist, ageist, fascist communist – in fact, I’m merely cartoonist”

As I said on twitter, if I’d actually been able to draw worth a damn, and had been better at thinking up funny lines, I might have fancied being a cartoonist.

Which explains, I guess, both my avatar, and the one cartoon that I have published. Though ‘published’ is probably  too grand a word; the magazine that printed it is a membership one for the Physiological Society, and the then editor was a friend of mine. And of course I didn’t get a fee.

But anyway, in response to dbaptista’s request, I dug it out of the archives – or rather, found it online – and have reproduced it above*. To my amazement, and even rather worryingly, it is a full ten years old.

Anyway, a few comments on the cartoon, starting with the top panel:

If you look back at photographs of scientists of the 1920s (a nice example can be found in the group photo here),  you will indeed find that tweed suits – usually three-piece ones, with a waistcoat to keep one’s shirt and tie away from the smellier or messier bits of the experiment – were pretty much de rigeur. Though for me personally, this panel was an hommage to Woody Allen, whose early movie Sleeper contained the immortal line:

‘Science is… guys in tweed suits cutting up frogs’

The 1970s scientist is more like the sort of people that I remember seeing around the Oxford University science areas when I was a teenager, and were still common in Universities when I was a student in the 80s (though many of them had trimmed their beards somewhat by then). In the Physiology Department where I did my PhDs in the mid-80s, most of the 40-ish male academics could be seen in older departmental photographs sporting heroically luxuriant 70s facial fuzz. Sir John Sulston is one notable British scientist who keeps this tradition alive.

The 1990s figure probably resembles my own generation of cell physiology people, though it would only actually have been me during a rather abortive Sabbatical year doing molecular biology in the late 90s. Most of my experimental work, back when I still used to do some, was with large microscopes in small dark rooms. These bolt-holes had the added advantage of being good for dozing, and for hiding from the students, or from the Head of Department when he wanted to sign you up for his latest scheme. One thing that was (and remains) characteristic of science academics, at least in the North of England, is the triumph of new fabric Polar-fleece type outdoorwear over the traditional woolly jumper; the latter is now only seen on the most old-fashioned among us.

Finally, the 2001 picture is doubtless pretty self-explanatory. Though a question arises:

If this was how we all felt about the amount of bureaucratic bullsh*t we had to put up with a full ten years ago… how big would that pile of papers be now?


*Sorry the image is so poor, but I originally drew the cartoon with the stylus on the drawing programme of the old Psion 5mx palmtop computer (anyone remember those?). Couldn’t find a digital version so I’ve had to cut ‘n’ paste it (with a bit of fiddling) from the online PDF version (see p 22 here).


10 Responses to “If I were a cartoonist”

  1. DBH Says:

    Nice post Dr Aust and I take partial credit for this post (making you dig it out in the first place).

    On bureaucratic c**p: It is only getting worse, with the health and safety lot providing the majority of incessant paperwork.

  2. followthelemur Says:

    I have a particular fondness for old physiologists who use themselves as test subjects.

    Polar fleece is a no-no for electrophysiology though, too static-y.

  3. Neuroskeptic Says:

    This is fantastic. You should dust off your cartooning pen once more.

  4. draust Says:


    The biggest shift I can see in the last 5 years is that vast amounts of the box-ticking bollocks has moved online, though that has in no way diminished its intrusiveness.In fact, I think it probably takes longer that way as you have to factor in the online forms crashing, or auto-refreshing and deleting what you’ve typed in.

    There are many different areas of form-filling-bloat (I’m including the online stuff) in academia, spanning absolutely all areas from research (grant forms, “Elf ‘n’ Safety”, procurement and purchasing) to teaching (ever-expanding assessment forms for everything, more and more online documentation required of every single meeting with each individual student) to admin (RAEs / RQAs / RPEs / REFs, and many other acronyms which all seem to require re-inputting the same information on grants/papers/”esteem indicators” AGAIN).


    I could write a book…. or at least a long post, but it would make me so utterly depressed that I don’t think I want to.

    Though you remind me that I did once, also many years ago, write a satirical article moaning about ‘Elf ‘n’ Safety. Perhaps I should dig that one out too.


    I think the ‘being your own test subject’ was especially common in respiratory physiology. The old human respiration papers from the 20s with Haldane & co – the ones that are the template for a lot of the standard student practical classes on respiration – are full of stuff like:

    ‘Subject: JBS. Alveolar PO2 reduced to not-very-much-at-all. Rasping breathing, confusion, visible blueish tinge in lips and generally somewhat in extremis. Subject reported later feeling in ‘some discomfort”

    Good point about the polar fleece and electrophysiology, BTW. Does that go for all synthetic fabrics? So no patching wearing an Aston Villa shirt (for instance)?

    Wonder if anyone’s tried earthing their shirt to the back of the amplifier using a crocodile clip on the end of a wire?

    Of course, the German electrophysiologists of the Sakmann-Neher generation would have been most unlikely to have patch-clamped wearing anything other than natural fabrics. And Birkenstocks.

    PS See you’ve been very busy on your blog lately.


    Cheers! Though I think I might need to go to drawing class.

  5. DBH Says:

    Re grounding oneself. I have not grounded my shirt but when I was recording single channels last year I did “attach” myself to the faraday cage – with tin foil wrapped round my arm and connected to the cage via croc clips and a wire.

  6. followthelemur Says:

    I think it’s a bigger problem in drier climates. When I was in Calgary, I was very prone to static shocks. There was a lab member who had a grounding wire…

    I wouldn’t know about the Villa shirt though… (I wasn’t the Villa fan in the lab ;) )

  7. followthelemur Says:

    I had blog guilt for posting 3 BlogAlongaBonds in a row and the Graze post had been sitting in my drafts since the royal wedding.

  8. draust Says:


    I guess we can say, then, that a tinfoil wristband is acceptable in a skeptic!

    It’s when you find you’ve made yourself a hat that you need to worry.


    I found 10+ years back I would get static shocks off the microscope when I wore a particular pair of shoes.Had to try and remember not to wear them on my (rare even by then!) experiment days.

    Re the blog, I was wondering whether your job had finished and you suddenly had lots of extra time on your hands… anyway, being able to actually FINISH your drafts is a useful talent. Wish I had it.

  9. followthelemur Says:

    I probably should have been writing papers :S

  10. DBH Says:

    The tin foil wristband did look silly and I had my fair share of ribbing from colleagues and my boss(!!!). Worse still, it did not make one pA of difference to the noise.

    And on many a long evenings in the lab, the tin foil hat was not too far fetched an idea…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: