World's Fair

Right now, I’m reading a gem of a book called Mortification, writers’ stories of their public shame. It essentially has 70 or so mini-pieces from a wide variety of writers, at various stages of their careers. These pieces share humiliating anecdotes as it relates to the life of a writer: Here, the liner notes encapsulates it nicely:

Mortification is a collection of writers’ tales of ignominy, a grimly compelling anthology of shame… Anyone who has ever fancied an author’s life would find this book an eye-opener…

Just to give you a sense of the flavour, here is one of the stories from Canada’s very own Margaret Atwood:

Long, long ago, when I was only twenty-nine and my first novel had just been published, I was living in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. It was 1969. The Woman’s Movement had begun, in New York City, but it had not yet reached Edmonton, Alberta. It was November. It was freezing cold. I was freezing cold, and I went about wearing a secondhand fur coat – muskrat, I think – that I’d bought at the Salvation Army for $25. I also had a fur hat I’d made out of a rabbit shruggie – a shruggie was a sort of fur bolero – by deleting the arms and sewing up the armholes.

My publisher arranged my first-ever book signing. I was very excited. Once I’d peel off the muskrats and rabbits, there I would be, inside the Hudson’s Bay Company Department Store, where it would be cozily warm – this in itself was exciting – with lines of eager, smiling readers waiting to purchase my book and have me scribble on it.

The signing was at a table set up in the Men’s Sock and Underwear Department. I don’t know what the thinking was behind this. There I sat, at lunch hour, smiling away, surrounded by piles of a novel called The Edible Woman. Men in overcoats and galoshes and toe rubbers and scarves and earmuffs passed by my table intent on the purchase of boxer shorts. They looked at me, then at the title of my novel. Subdued panic broke out. There was the sound of muffled stampede as dozens of galoshes and toe rubbers shuffled rapidly in the other direction.

I sold two copies.

Anyway, the book has got me thinking that humiliation is not necessarily something reserved for the writing sect, and so I’m wondering whether anyone else has a great tale of science humiliation to share.

I’ll start:

Actually, all of mine are quite lame, since my anecdotes all happened at the early parts of my science career (as in when I was a kid), and as well, none of them are impressive enough to turn into a “piece” per se. Still, I’m cringing a little as I think about one in particular –

Science Fair Typo:

This was in England at my grammar school. I was probably around 13 or so. This, you must realize, was roughly when puberty was about to hit, my voice already wavering slightly. To be honest, I can’t even remember what my science fair project was about – something medical maybe? But I do remember having a really nice looking poster – pretty enough anyway for attracting the right kind of attention.

This was great. I envisioned a high mark, and it seemed that even the cool kids were impressed enough to come over, smile at me, and take a look – even some of the pretty girls in my class.

Unfortunately, it soon became clear that the main reason I was attracting a crowd was not because of my stunning scientific prowess, or because of the attractive aesthetics of my poster layout. really, my suspicions should have been aroused, but I guess when you think you’re on to something good, you ride that feeling for a while. No, the attention wasn’t because of all that, it was because I had misspelled “public” throughout the text. I had, in its place, spelled “pubic.”

– – –

Anyway, over to you: Let’s even call this a meme. If you have a science humiliation story to tell, please do and forward the link in the comments.


  1. #1 Jason Failes
    June 11, 2008

    I had a friend in high school who made the same mistake on a carefully crafted t-shirt reproduction of the “Public Enemy” logo, but he was the kind of person who could catch the error, still wear the shirt, and play it like he meant it all along.

  2. #2 Zeno
    June 11, 2008

    The paperback edition of Goldman’s The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson has the identical typo in a paragraph recounting President Johnson’s unwillingness to appear too affectionate toward his closest male friends (no hugs!) because he was obsessed with “his pubic image”. At least, I assumed it was a typo when I read it in my college history class.

  3. #3 Brian
    June 11, 2008

    Back when I was about 7, I attended a Junior High Math Fair with my older brother who had a presentation (and won a gold medal, woohoo!). Snug in my sweet green Member’s Only jacket, I skipped along ahead of my family as we left the conference hall. I slipped and fell into some sort of puddle (a puddle, in a hallway? Must have been a leak somewhere), and my jacket was soaked. It didn’t really hurt, though I couldn’t quite understand why my parents were laughing so much.

    I suppose some other kid at the math fair had gotten very nervous, because my ‘puddle’ was actually a pile of vomit. My parents didn’t tell me until a little bit later, and I never wore my Member’s Only jacket again :(

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    June 11, 2008

    In Marblehead Mass, there is a store called “Peni’s” but the apostrophe is really really tiny, so from any distance at all up the main street you see “PENIS”

    (I’ve been looking for a place to tell that story…. hey, anyone from Marblehead?)

  5. #5 "GrrlScientist"
    June 11, 2008

    that story makes me love margaret atwood even more, if that’s possible.

  6. #6 Lora
    June 11, 2008

    Oh holy FSM, I hope my undergrad adviser doesn’t read this.

    They made us take gym class as undergrads, as my alma mater felt that us science geeks should learn to appreciate the many benefits of physical fitness. Unfortunately, the only gym class that fit my schedule was Weight Lifting, and on one particular day I had to do Weight Lifting and then go to work-study for several hours. By the time I got halfway through re-organizing the chemical inventory, I thought my arms were going to fall off.

    We had USP grade menthol that hadn’t been used in ages. Hey, menthol is in Tiger Balm. Hmm, what can I dissolve it in for liniment? I know, ethanol! Having no notion of proper topical dosages, I dissolved about 1/4 tsp. in maybe 30 ml EtOH and rubbed the resulting tingly liquid on my shoulders and chest with a paper towel. Aha, I feel much better!

    4 hours later, when I still couldn’t feel my hands or move my biceps, I humbly asked my histology/physiology professor what I should do.

    15 minutes later, when she was done laughing and had caught her breath, she told me to go to the emergency room if it hadn’t worn off in a couple more hours. It did wear off, though. I still think they should use high-dose topical menthol in patients who are allergic to lidocaine.

  7. #7 Sven DiMIlo
    June 12, 2008

    Greg, I’m not from there, but I think I ended up in Marblehead once when I was trying to figure out how to get the hell out of Somerville.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    June 12, 2008


    Only in the Greater Boston Area can a failed attempt to leave one city cause one to end up three or four cities away. But that is indeed how one learns the terrain there.

    You just don’t want to end up in Revere. Kind of a dead end.

  9. #9 Colin M
    June 15, 2008

    My CS 102 teacher (teaching Java) invited a lot of titters when he wrote “pubic static void main()” on the blackboard and proceeded to not notice for a good 15 minutes or so…