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Can you tell the difference between the sort of person who would write a programming language and a serial killer?

It’s getting close to Halloween so this is a good time to test your powers of detection.

Malevole has a lovely survey that asks if you can tell whether a person is a famous computer scientist or famous for another reason.

I’m interested in whether biologists as a group are able to tell the difference.

If you’d like to play:

1. Go take Malvole’s survey first,

2. Then come back here and take mine.

It won’t take much time and I’ll post the results up in a couple of weeks.


  1. #1 tourettist
    September 16, 2007

    A picture is insufficient data.

  2. #2 Jennifer Ouellette
    September 16, 2007

    Insufficient data or no, I managed to score 8 out of 10 on Malevole’s test — and one of those I missed was both a computer programmer AND a serial killer, so I maintain that was a trick question. The real issue is: what does this say about ME? 🙂

  3. #3 Sandra Porter
    September 16, 2007

    But Jennifer, you hang out with physicists. The physicists that I’ve known look quite a bit like both the computer scientists and the serial killers.

    Maybe you’ve learned to tell the difference. 🙂

  4. #4 John Wilkins
    September 16, 2007

    I’m not doing the questionnaire because I already know the answer. A serial killer only kills you once. A programmer can kill you an indefinite number of times. More, if they work for Microsoft.

  5. #5 llewelly
    September 16, 2007

    I first saw this quiz back in the late 1990s. I got them all right. (The first time I took it; this time I didn’t take it because some fool converted it to flash, and it doesn’t run on the linux flash plugin (because adobe is always slow to update the linux flash plugin).) They are all designers of relatively obscure programming languages. The question Jennifer complained about is only a trick question if you don’t know the difference between a designer of programming languages (which is really what the test is asking about) and an ordinary programmer. I didn’t take your survey because I’m not a biologist. (I’m a programmer – but if you ask me I bet the average programmer has never heard of about half of the languages designed by those people.)

  6. #6 Tony P
    September 16, 2007

    I got 7/10 on the first test. Language programmers are pretty easy to spot. They’re the ones that look like the biggest geeks.

    I don’t look like a geek because I’m not actually a programmer. I’m an all around I.T. guy.

  7. #7 Matt Platte
    September 16, 2007

    @llewelly: I’ll bet you made arithmetic errors in calculus class too, just like I did. 1) Adobe’s Flash 9 is pretty much up to date, way better than when MM was steward of the code. The quiz works fine on my Ubuntu Dapper+Firefox workstation, a Dell PIII Dimension 4100. 2) Sandra’s survey has a question specifically for you (and me) regarding one’s vocation.

    I got 7/10. Guess I still harbor grudges against my fellow geeks as I picked out way too many serial killers.

  8. #8 PZ Myers
    September 16, 2007


    Your survey has a flaw, though, since I could only check one: I’m a biologist, but I also worked for several years as a system manager and programmer — I’ve actually written software in some of those languages, and recognized most of the language designers.

    I didn’t recognize the guy who invented Scheme.

  9. #9 Sandra Porter
    September 16, 2007

    PZ – I did have one category that I intended to have represent biologists with some programming skills. I guess I just didn’t describe it well enough.

    9/10 is amazing! The only one I recognized was a serial killer.

  10. #10 noncarborundum
    September 16, 2007

    Hey! I got the same score as PZ!

  11. #11 blf
    September 17, 2007

    I decided, as soon as I saw the survey was a bunch of Flash images, that I was not going to play that silly guessing game and simply chose programming language inventor for each one. Two reasons: I hate Flash, and–as already pointed out-a portrait is insufficient data. End result is 5/10.

  12. #12 brent
    September 17, 2007

    Silly commenters, of course a picture is insufficient data. Duh. Play the stupid game, don’t make excuses for your lousy performance, and don’t brag about your superior guessing ability.

    And I bet you can’t throw your apple core into that trash can from where you’re sitting. Bet you can’t! Ha ha!

    (3/10 and proud of it)

  13. #13 Animesh Sharma
    September 18, 2007

    PZ, the only one I could recognize was Sussman [Shceme guys, http://www-swiss.ai.mit.edu/~gjs/ ], thanks to the http://swiss.csail.mit.edu/classes/6.001/abelson-sussman-lectures/ .

  14. #14 Doug
    September 18, 2007

    I guess I cannot identify my own kind. 7/10. I picked up a few mass murderers who should have diverted their energies starting a programming language (as long as it’s polymorphic).

    How about a quiz using biologist? Be sure to include PZ’s nude photo.

  15. #15 Milamba
    September 18, 2007

    Hmmm… not a biologist, programmer or serial killer, but I managed a 10/10 score…. LOL

  16. #16 RickD
    September 19, 2007

    Most of the people who looked cheerful and friendly were not serial killers. People in grainy photos that look like they might have been taken in the 1930s were serial killers.

  17. #17 Dangerous Dan
    September 19, 2007

    First time through I got 6/10, but recognized all but one of the Languages–but the designers were perfect strangers. Even having seen the test and having read RickD’s guide to picking serial killers, I still only got 8/10.

  18. #18 psy
    September 23, 2007

    i wasnt sure about 4 of them (3 because of low quality, 1 for photo from side)
    but for others: 6/6 were quite obvious

    some serial killers can be seen here: http://www.francesfarmersrevenge.com/stuff/serialkillers/
    they are all somehow typical..

    also, i just found, that my country has no famous serial killer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_serial_killers_by_country
    what a opportunity 😀 ..but i am already programmer 🙁

  19. #19 Richard Wintle
    September 25, 2007

    Um. Four out of ten. Although I got David Berkowitz aka Son of Sam right away – probably recognized the newspaper photo.

    I suspect that we need some control groups for comparison – science journalists, bloggers, drug dealers, that kind of thing.

  20. #20 Organic Chemistry
    October 29, 2007

    Interesting test. Even though that could go for just about any walk of life, i appreciate picking on programmers.

    Got 6/10

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