The Primate Diaries

The Science of Monty Python

Monty Python: The scientists of silliness?

I’m currently working on a book (scheduled for release sometime in the 2010s) that intends to be an extension of my research in evolutionary anthropology and the history/philosophy of science. In the coming months I may be tempted to write more about it — and could be persuaded to publish short excerpts like Brian at Laelaps has been doing with his current opus — but I’m not quite ready for a grand unveiling.

However, I’m often amazed at the kinds of science related books that are commonly published (“related” being the word to emphasize). These books often get a wider distribution than titles that really delve into fascinating and important issues. So before I get into the book I’m writing I thought I might talk a little about the books I’m NOT writing, but perhaps should be.

First on my list would be tapping into that successful “The Science of . . .” brand of knock-off pop sci titles. Books like The Science of Star Wars or The Science of Supervillains are at least somewhat related to scientific concepts (supervillains often being mad scientists intent on world domination, most of whom read ScienceBlogs as their blog network of choice). But, some other recent titles stretch the concept to some pretty absurd dimensions. The Science of Harry Potter, for example, looks at how magic “really” works and even has a technical schematic of a flying broomstick on its cover. But my favorite of the absurd books in this genre would have to be The Physics of Christmas which looks at such concepts as, among other things, the aerodynamics of flying reindeer and the thermodynamics of turkey. (Hint: a two hour basting at 400 degrees apparently can’t be cut in half by setting the oven to 800.) So here is my contribution to this highly regarded series that is, apparently, easy to explain to publishers in just thirty words or less.

The Science of Monty Python

Just think about it, it could be brilliant! Consider this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

Guard: Where’d you get the coconuts?
King Arthur: We found them.
Guard: Found them? In Mercia? The coconut’s tropical!
King Arthur: What do you mean?
Guard: Well this is a temperate zone!
King Arthur: The swallow may fly south with the sun, or the house marten or the plover may seek warmer climes in winter, yet these are not strangers to our land!
Guard: Are you suggesting coconuts migrate?
King Arthur: Not at all! They could be carried.
Guard: What? A swallow carrying a coconut?
King Arthur: It could grip it by the husk!
Guard: It’s not a question of where he grips it! It’s a simple question of weight ratios! A five ounce bird could not carry a one pound coconut!

Of course we all know that, in order to maintain air-speed velocity, a swallow needs to beat its wings forty-three times every second. But what is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow? And does it matter if it’s an African or European swallow? These are vital questions that need to be resolved. Fortunately brilliant minds have been up to the task. As Jonathan Corum has cleverly deduced, there are only two swallows known as the African swallow and, as the comedic bards correctly referenced in their film, both are nonmigratory. When you consider the Strouhal Number in cruising flight and an average wingbeat amplitude for the European swallow of 24 cm, that means that the correct answer is 11 meters per second. But could a 5 oz. bird really carry a one pound coconut over such a considerable distance or would two swallows need to carry it together? Well, for that you’ll have to read the book.

Or consider this tantalizing tidbit of scientific wisdom that is a mere tossaway line in Holy Grail:

Sir Bedevere: And that, my liege, is how we know the earth to be banana shaped.
King Arthur: This new learning amazes me Sir Bedevere! Explain again how sheep’s bladders may be employed to prevent earthquakes.

With evidence that the universe is actually ellipsoidal it is clear that the uniform magnetic field pervading the cosmos, or possibly a defect in the fabric of spacetime, could bring about a non-zero eccentricity resulting in a banana shaped planet. This may surprise those people who have actually witnessed the Earth as spherical, but that perception was merely an artifact resulting from photons warped under the force of gravity. As for the sheep’s bladders, well, that’s just common sense. Naturally I would jazz this section up a bit with some exciting graphics (anyone know how to get in touch with Mr. Gilliam’s people?).

Later chapters in the book would discuss the quantum drive used by the space aliens in The Life of Brian, the aerodynamics of flying sheep, how confusing cats may end the epidemic of feline moping, the kinesiology of funny walks along with the pharmacodynamics of the world’s funniest joke, and an annotated version of The Galaxy Song from The Meaning of Life. Naturally there would have to be a chapter discussing sex. For that I would use all of the tact and sophistication that the Python team has been known for (with large opaque labels warning “Naughty Bits”).

I want to emphasize, of course, that this is a book I will NOT be writing (unless of course someone steals my idea and makes a ton of money off of it, in which case you will find yourself before a cloistered judge faster than you can say “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”). But please offer your suggestions for additional chapter ideas below. For some inspiration please see the hilarious suggestions offered when I originally posted this at my alma mater Nature Network.

Publishing agents can contact me at:


  1. #1 Joseph Hewitt
    July 19, 2009

    How could you forget penguin intelligence testing? We actually watched that skit in one of my psych courses at university; the professor showed it to us, then asked what (if anything) was wrong with their methodology.

  2. #2 Ian
    July 20, 2009

    Don’t forget “Confuse-a-cat”

  3. #3 Ian
    July 20, 2009

    OK, I see you did suggest confuse-a-Cat, so let me suggest a new book, titled: The Science of Why and How People Make Superfluous and Short-Sighted Comments on a Blog Having Only Skimmed Through the Blog whilst Downloading it for Reading Offline and Thereby Missing Things They Oughtn’t.

    This title also has the added benefit of being the longest science title ever published. As such, it ought to get you into the Guninness Book of Records and thereby increase your sales immeasurably. There will be no charge for this service.

  4. #4 Patrick
    July 20, 2009

    In all seriousness, I think that the “(random scientific field) of” brand does some good in promoting scientific understanding among the general population, as long as the books are well-researched and takes its science seriously. For example, I recently read Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Impossible, which attempts to unravel the possibility of such fantastic ideas as time travel, faster-than-light space ships, and telepathy. Although Kaku explored some pretty speculative territory, he still cites his evidence and maintains a measured, scientifically grounded viewpoint throughout. At the same time, tying his physics to familiar science fiction tropes makes the science he discusses more accessible to a general audience. I can’t speak for some of the books that you bring up, but I do think that there’s a place for these popular forms of science writing.