back to article So, what exactly defines a 'boffin'? Speak your brains...

The recent protest by computer scientist Yossi Oren of Columbia University that he hadn't been hailed as a boffin here at El Reg prompted some lively debate at Vulture Central as what exactly defines the term. Some of us, while conceding that scientists such as Oren are indeed clever chaps, felt that his area of expertise …

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A plea: bring back real boffins on TV!

I grew up in a world where people could get on telly even if they had bad teeth and raging nostril hair, just as long as they knew something about something. Science programmes weren't afraid to explain something and expect you to try to keep up, and they didn't need to feature the presenter's best loved holiday destinations to explain gravity.

Now (with some odd exceptions) we get people like Kate Humble who come on 'science' programmes to tell us that the earth is 'At Risk' on account of its orbit in the solar system.

No. She doesn't have raging nasal hair issues. Yes, she has big eyes and lovely blonde hair. But please can we have some real boffins back on telly, and please can they look like real people (or better still, like the boffins of old) and please can they be given the chance to write a programme that doesn't have to assume it's talking to the very most stupid person in the country? Even when cool hipsters like Brian Cox get on telly, they have to write a programme so dumbed down so our goldfish can keep up, being as it is just a random collection of pretty graphics and lovely skies.

If they can stretch the audience with Only Connect, why not for something a bit more useful, like wot boffins do?

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Re: A plea: bring back real boffins on TV!

We need a Magnus Pyke and a Heinz Wolff for the 21st century. Bring back "The Great Egg Race".

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Re: A plea: bring back real boffins on TV!

And David Bellamy, with a side order of Johnny Ball....and maybe James Burke...ah nostalgia, the only thing cable TV is good for

Back then, the presenters radiated enthusiasm and it was infectious.

I've just been watching the historical Horizons on iPlayer - and the older ones are far, far better. No music, no elaborate locations, no fancy-schmancy camera work - just good old fashioned science.

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Re: A plea: bring back real boffins on TV!

Ahh.. I remember watching this when I was a youngster, Jacob Bronowski even sounds like a boffiny name. (I have the book as well, presented at school prize day, for being a swot)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ascent_of_Man

That was when documentaries weren't afraid to have someone TALK to you and show the person doing the talking and didn't feel the need to have actors dressed up to do a historical re-enactment.

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Re: A plea: bring back real boffins on TV!

Like Quatermass

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Re: A plea: bring back real boffins on TV!

In the States, one of the earliest was Mr. Wizard. He'd do some experiments and then explain why it worked or didn't work. And all in glorious black and white with no graphics or music. When something really went wrong, you could hear the laughter of the crew in the background. But we did get a full dose of science even if it was to explain why something didn't work. Oh.. and it was live with repeats via the magic of kinescope.

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Re: A plea: bring back real boffins on TV!

Upvote for James Burke.

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Re: A plea: bring back real boffins on TV!

Having said that... There should still be as much of Professor Alice Roberts on telly as it is possible to fit in. I feel that I learn an extraordinary amount from her.

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Re: A plea: bring back real boffins on TV!

I used to love James Burke's programmes. Oddly though he was an English graduate and lecturer (I think) before getting into TV presenting. I suspect he got into science presentation from being on Tomorrow's World. However this was long before the autocue and probably script-writers so he definitely seemed to understand his stuff. Ideally that's what you want on telly for the masses -- someone who understands what they're saying and can string some words together not inelegantly;)

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Anonymous Coward

Boffins are very pixelated magenta-skinned labcoat-wearing characters who wear glasses and carry a handy umbrella. Boffins like owls and dislike spiders. This informative nugget from Wikipedia:

"The Boffin can only jump short distances, but he can fall from any height by opening his umbrella to slow his descent to a safe speed"

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Barnes Wallis is the best boffin example I can think of. Developing not one, but a string of innovative aircraft and weapons that shortened the war by a significant amount.

A boffin typically struggles against an ignorant establishment working on ideas seen as a waste of time by superiors. When proven right, he or she will get a curt acknowledgement and then be shunned for showing up the embarrassed "senior staffers" who thought they knew better. After they take some credit for themselves, of course.

Innovation, determination, and a desire to make things better with science is my definition of boffins. They could work in a multi-billion dollar corporation or a shed.

Boffins succeed in the face of endless, "That'll never work lad/lass."

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I would have thought one of the major requirements would be for the work they are doing to have the potential of discovering/creating something new.

So - a metallurgist might end up being a boffin, but it's highly unlikely that an architect (no matter the number of degrees) does the same - most would be trick-cyclists.

But what about middle-ground, say Astronomists? I'd say the one which simply look at telescopes are NOT boffins, but the ones who use said observations to come up with new theories (or better places to look) are boffins.

YMMV

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Agreed, to be a boffin you need to meet several requirements:

1) To perform research in to something technical.

2) Said research is to create something new and special (i.e. not just a slightly cheaper/faster phone or similar). Physics/astronomy theory might just get in there, but only if well beyond normal comprehension.

3) Points 1 & 2 are more important to said boffin than "normal" social activities. Not to say they don't enjoy a pub, BBQ, or anything similar, but are quite likely to head back to test tube-bothering at unpredictable times.

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As long as the discoveries involve a lab coat and pipe, I think you've a valid point there. Boffinry certainly requires research.

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Anonymous Coward

Astronomists vs Astronomers

I would like to point at the key difference between

- Astronomists who look AT telescopes and cannot be boffins.

- Astronomers who look IN telescopes and can indeed be boffins

Ps. After 10 years of contemplation of a telescope astronomists either reach enlightenment or finally realise how to use the bloody thing and become astronomer.

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Cliff,

I don't think Barnes Wallis wore a lab coat. And I'd say he was definitely a boffin. I think it's perfectly acceptable to wear a tweed jacket with leather elbow-patches and still attain boffinry. In fact, it rather goes with the pipe.

Oh and architects are most definitely not boffins. They're mostly the bain of my working life...

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Don't forget to add an applicable shade of autism and a healthy disdain for "everybody knows" types of knowledge. Boffins will niggle at an idea if it appeals to them, no matter what anybody else thinks.

If and when Boffins use statistics, they use it as a checking tool ( remember the Higgs 5-Sigma wait?....) , not as a means to an end.

A true boffin will have a "shed" ( may range from actual shed to fully fledged transsylvanian castle + Igor) where he can and will pursue his passion if left unattended. This may be why they tend to have some form of in-house staff with full authority to run their lives, lest they forget to feed themselves.

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They must certainly have a shed to 'potter in' over the weekend, so that they can 'knock something up' like a new form a jet engine or something (as in "Monday morning at the lab: Mr Boffin- Hey Gerald, come and have a look at this doobrey I knocked up over the weekend and see what you think"). What follows will probably a complete catastrophe of business sense (if they are British) and eventually some shark from the US will see it's potential, buy it and apply some solid business sense to it to start the next revolution in the application of science.

I think it's mostly about attitude.

If someone is really really clever and has lots of degrees and *knows* everything in the text books they are not a boffin, unless..

they think outside the box, aren't afraid of looking stupid and have a healthy disrespect for 'form before content'.

They can be a lot of different things, but 'normal' isn't one of them. That's essential.

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What about Buckminster Fuller? He was an architect (of sorts) but still pretty boffin-y.

I don't think we should hold designing the odd building against people, provided they've done more useful things in the their time as well.

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(Sir) Barnes (Neville) Wallis

I am the proud possessor of a magazine featuring an aircraft designed by prof Wallis. He kindly signed the picture of him holding a model of said aircraft.

His handwritig is really neat (as in completely legible).

He appears to be wearing a tweed suit.

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Tweed....

Isn't the tweed jacket with leather elbow patches an early 20th century form of lab coat?

Oh and I propose Alan Blumlein for archetypal boffin.

unheard off (mostly)

self taught (entirely)

wide portfolio of unimaginably important inventions/discoveries (undoubtedly)

like a latter-day Tesla.....

Ooooh! Telsa!

unheard of (pretty bloody famous akshualy!)........

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Anonymous Coward

The Boffing Test

A derivation of the Turing test for boffins whereby your average chap after a 10 minutes dialogue over a computer terminal is convinced that he has been talking to a machine or an extra terrestrial.

Should you not have the equipment and time to conduct a full Boffing test, here are a few simpler techniques that may help you decide:

- A boffin will light up at the name of Beckham - the famous polymer scientist.

- A boffin will laugh unreservedly and without delay at the following joke "3 statisticians go duck hunting. The first one shoots too high and misses. The second one shoots too low and misses. The third one doesn't shoot and shouts - Ah ah got it!"

- Anyone in a room answering from the top of their head questions like "Anyone remembers the rest energy of a W-Boson?" or "D4 and db2 wavelets are the same right?" is most likely a boffin (or could be a case of stephen fry trying to sound smart)

- Conversely anyone giving you a blank look when words like Lindsay Lohan (Is he the chap doing molecular simulation at Imperial college?), Eastenders, or World Cup are mentioned is also likely to be a boffin (or a lost chinese tourist that doesn't understand a word of what you're saying).

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Re: The Boffing Test

<i- Anyone in a room answering from the top of their head questions like "Anyone remembers the rest energy of a W-Boson?" or "D4 and db2 wavelets are the same right?" is most likely a boffin (or could be a case of stephen fry trying to sound smart)</i>

To distinguish between a boffin and Stephen Fry at this point, check to see if their answer is actually correct.

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Re: The Boffing Test

"To distinguish between a boffin and Stephen Fry at this point, check to see if their answer is actually correct."

Only another boffin can confirm if the first boffins answer is correct. Checking if Mr Fry is correct, on the other hand....

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The socks have it

It would be very easy to label a boffin with physical characteristics: Einstein's hair, Patrick Moore's dress sense (not that I'm suggesting Sir PM ever wore a dress), Brains from Thunderbirds glasses. However, that would be shallow.

No. A true boffin would be a person who was wonderfully at home with all sorts of abstract notions. Who has a brain the size of a planet and is able to explain simple facts and phenomena in such complex and technical terms that no-one without and equally sized brain would have a clue what he/she/it was taking about. If they have to lapse into differential equations, tensor algebra or Schwartzian Transforms to "explain" - then so much the better.

A true boffin would also be totally mystified by the inability of us ordinary folk to follow their descriptions and train of thought.

One other thing that a boffin would always do, would be to require strict, technical, definitions and (of course) units of measurement to quantify whatever it is they are referring to - including their own boffinry. I would like to offer the Pyke as a unit of boffinry. 1 Pyke would adequately describe Dr. Magnus, himself. With perhaps a milli-Pyke being the level you attain by wearing mis-matched socks (and 2 mPyke for only wearing one sock). There could, of course, be negative values: attributed to individuals who not only didn't meet the requirements of boffinry, but who actually eschewed them. Being organised, pretty or understandable would count against and that's why there are so few boffins on TV any more.

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Re: The socks have it

I vote for the milli-Pyke as being a new El Reg measure!

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Magnus Pyke's genius

I remember when he was asked what time is, and his answer was quick, funny, and at a deep level actually true: "Its the stuff produced by clocks"

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(Written by Reg staff) Gold badge

Re: The socks have it

I'd suggest amending that to the deci-Pyke, allowing a manageable ten levels leading up to a full Pyke.

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An Australian response

"I would like to offer the Pyke as a unit of boffinry"

I must disagree ... the standard unit of boffinry is obviously the Kruszelnicki.

Quite apart from the Ig Nobel prize and having an asteroid named after him, Dr Karl's line in shirts clearly qualifies him for this honour.

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Boffin

Re: The socks have it

Plus one for the incomprehensible to mere mortals bit.

I was lucky(?) enough to be taught Molecular Physics as a proto-boffin by the great boffin Harry Kroto.

We were all 3rd year physics undergrads - not one of us understood a single word he said. The huddle around the teaching assistant who explained things to us mere mortals after class was the biggest I ever saw.

Sadly I neglected my nascent boffinry career for one in IT.

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Re: The socks have it

@Lester Haines - agreed, the deci-Pyke is better, and in keeping with the decibel.

@Gray Ham - It helps to name things after dead folk, as there is no risk of them returning to a normal low-energy non-boffin state.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: The socks have it

>able to explain simple facts and phenomena in such complex and technical terms

I used to be able to do that after about 6 pints on a Friday night.

Now I only need half a pint, if I ever again get to six pints I'd be totally unintelligible. Is this an indication that my boffinry is increasing or am I losing it?

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Boffin

Re: The socks have it

+1 on the Pyke as the unit of measurement for boffinry.

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Boffin

Re: The socks have it

That has to be a logarithmic scale, of course.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: The socks have it

" agreed, the deci-Pyke is better, and in keeping with the decibel."

So you're suggesting the Pyke scale should be logarithmic to needlessly overcomplicate things? Perfect :)

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Re: The socks have it

Whilst the Pyke should obviously be used to measure true Boffinry and the deciPyke for everyday Boffins, the milliPyke should be retained for those with a hint of Boffinry but are, at heart, fairly normal and can dress themselves without attracting undue attention..

"I reckon I must have measured at least 3 milli-Pykes today when I came up with that method of transferring tomatoes across the canteen with a catapult and quad-copter combo"

There should also be a negative scale, perhaps with an inverse logarithmic correlation - we could call it a Bimboid perhaps?

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(Written by Reg staff) Gold badge

Re: Re: The socks have it

Well...

"I reckon I must have measured at least 3 milli-Pykes today when I came up with that method of transferring tomatoes across the canteen with a catapult and quad-copter combo"

I think that's a "2 deciPyke moment", the moment being a reference to passing flashes of minor boffinry, without actually having the credentials to merit a full, permanent score on the Pyke scale.

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Re: The socks have it

> the Pyke scale should be logarithmic

Tricky one, for two reasons.

First of all, is the scale additive or multiplicative? If one has a box in the lab shed marked "lasers: misc." that puts you somewhere on the scale. Likewise if you just happen to own a mass spectrometer (or have a penchant for high altitude balloons), you would also be on there, somewhere. However if you have both does that make you a boffin by the sum of those devices "boffinism" or does it imply a greater area of boffinism, hence multiplying (or adding the log()'s) of the individual contributions.

Secondly, how would a logarithmic scale denote a person with zero boffinism? log(0) is not a defined value and there are no log()'s of negative values and log(<fraction>) comes out to be < 0.0.

In the spirit of making things as complicated as necessary a logarithmic scale would need to be calculated something like:

($value == 0 ? 0 : sign($value) * log(abs($value+1))/log(2))

Where the log(2) is a normalisation, so that a 1 Pyke boffin gets assigned a value of 1.0 - we wouldn't want them to be too Pyke-y, would we?

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Re: The socks have it

"A true boffin would also be totally mystified by the inability of us ordinary folk to follow their descriptions and train of thought."

pete 2, Alas the same applies to politicians and management 'consultants'

<Sorry, I have mentioned the unmentionable, I'll ge me coat.>

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Re: The socks have it

"A true boffin would also be totally mystified by the inability of us ordinary folk to follow their descriptions and train of thought."

"pete 2, Alas the same applies to politicians and management 'consultants'"

I have to disagree with this -- those people not only are not mystified, they know full well their own existence depends on ordinary folk not understanding what they say. Your true boffin actually really does think he is being clear and simplifying by describing the motion of a floor buffer in terms of rotating force tensors, e.g.

And that leads me to a couple rules I'd like to see in the Pyke scale --

1. There must be some characteristic of tuning out the real world either transiently or permanently, but not enough to be actually scary. i.e. Norbert Weiner, asking what direction he had been walking when he stopped to talk to you and being told the answer saying, "Thanks, then I guess I've already eaten." was a boffin.

2. Things boffins do are for the glory of boffinry, not to become rich by selling to rubes. Woz could be a boffin, Jobs never. Goddard maybe, Musk no, not really. Edison no, Tesla yes and no.

I think there needs to be a big dash of enthusiasm, also. Simple putterers aren't really boffins, no matter how smart or clever.

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Re: The socks have it

there are no log()'s of negative values

???

log(-1) == exp(iπ)·

It's a way of writing Euler's Identity (look on Wikipedia).

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Re: The socks have it

log(-1) == exp(iπ)·"

Ur wot mate? iπ with my little eye, something beginning with 3

<not a boffin, no sirree, but they get my respect and admiration>

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Well one of my old supervisors..

with a brilliant analytic mind, once went to a west-coast symposium with some other colleagues and during one evening they went to a night-club or stage show or similar and to their suprise (?) it turned into rather a raunchy strip-tease show - my old boss calmly carried on discussing the chemistry of the day drawing reactions onto his napkin. Nobody else, apparently, took any notice of him.

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Re: Well one of my old supervisors..

Like Feynman? Hell, I've sat in a strip club in Atlanta and done real work before.

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A boffin is ...

... a researcher who is named a boffin by his/her peers.

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Re: A boffin is ...

I'd say no to that Jake. The main and original characteristic of a boffin is the effect they have on 'ordinary' people, as in the perception of them by service personnel during the technical developments in WW2. Boffinry is perceived by ordinary people and therefore should be defined by ordinary people. (It often involves the eyes glazing over and some mental dislocation when a boffin explains their work.) It's not a group you're invited into by fellow members, it's a club you're put into by outsiders.

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Re: A boffin is ...

oops, wrong thread.

Definitely like that last description though - makes peoples eyes glaze and being marked as a Boffin by normals.

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Re: A boffin is ...

One problem with that - by that measure, any fairly competent IT-person is a boffin (don't tell me you never got the glassy stare trying to explain to somebody what and why you were trying to do right in front of them...), and in my book that's definitely not so.

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Boffin

Re: A boffin is ...

some mental dislocation when a boffin explains their work

There must be a way to measure this dislocation, and expressed as distance (in linguini) times (IQ/100)^n [1] it could be worked into the boffinry formula. But because it's friday I'll take the formula home, expose it to some C2H5OH over the coming 48 hours, and see what develops.

[1] Exponent to be determined. It'd be easy dislocating a Gumby's mental facilities over several decalinguini and up to two doubledecker buses, using run-of-the-mill everyday science. But truly baffling a fellow boffin should weigh more heavily, even if the mental dislocation is way less in absolute distance.

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Anonymous Coward

A positivist pragamatic view on the epistemology of boffins.

If it looks like a boffin and quacks like a boffin then it's a boffin

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