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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Headmaster

Standing on the shoulders of giants?

Additional point: a boffin should build on the work of his or her predecessors. They can take the work of Newton, Einstein, Galileo, Oppenheimer et.al and think "wouldn't it be neat if we did this?" Of course, when their new ideas come to fruition, they should credit the original sources and perhaps explain what led to their examining this new line of research.

Anyone who takes someone else's research, builds on it and then claims all the credit is not a boffin. He or she would be a rip-off merchant.

Colin

Grammar Nazi icon because he has the look of a boffin-turned-lecturer :-)

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A major requirement!

I think we have missed one MAJOR requirement for a boffin. They must be over the age of 40. Boffinry requires experience in the field, preferably longer in the field than any student they are likely to encounter!

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Anonymous Coward

At least

scientist or very good inventor.

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A boffin...

is someone who doesn't have to look things up on Wikipedia.

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The Bond Test

I think a boffin is anyone whose job or area of expertise puts them at risk of being abducted by Bond villains and being made to work on fiendish plots to take over the world. Examples would be:

- Rocket scientists.

- Nuclear Physicists

- Laser experts

- Microbiologists

- Geneticists

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Boffin envy

Here in the US some three of ten adults I ask can't say what makes a dropped tennis ball bounce. That's the bad news. The good news is that about as many eight-to-ten-year-olds CAN, sometimes with a little help. We are working very hard to make sure they forget before they're old enough to vote.

FWIW. *I* junked my TV in 1997 and can still tell an ångström from an angleworm. (But see http://cosmoquest.org/forum/showthread.php?122828-Pronunciation-of-angstrom)

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Boffin

Definition

A boffin is someone who wears a knitted tie!

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Waht about us 'pure' mathematicians?

"definition: applied scientist?

A boffin is a special kind of scientist who is able to apply their command of a body of theoretical knowledge to solving a practical problem.

Pipe -> theory

lab coat -> application"

By that definition G H Hardy would not qualify, nor would Kurt Godel.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Waht about us 'pure' mathematicians?

Nope... too detached from the real world... unless you use the pure maths to invent a codebreaking machine!

Pure maths is the foundation of "real" science & an essential tool of any boffin - but in my experience most mathematicians (and even some Comp. Sci. academics) are perfectly happy to exist entirely within the world of ideas without being concerned as to whether any of those ideas is useful.

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Ideitifying features

Physicist Richard Feynman wrote that he and some colleges went to conference on gravity and forgot the address. They told the taxi driver to go where other passengers using words like "mu" and "nu" with each other had sent him. No problem.

We don't have boffins in the US (One of my High School classmates -- 1962 -- would qualify for his work at Argonne National Labs) but sometimes use nerd or geek. I suspect these are rather off target, though; I've been called the latter myself simply because I know a little about electronics . (Is a kid who builds a railgun in his bedroom at 12 a nerd or a geek? The landlord thought I was a threat to his wallboard.)

A few years ago, before I retired, I was to do a class on practical electromagnetic compatibility at an aerospace firm to newly hired engineers , and had to drop part where I wanted to ask them the field radiated by a wire carrying current (given radiation pattern and resistance). High School arithmetic!

Boffins? Ask an archaeologist.

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Silver badge

Re: Ideitifying features

"They told the taxi driver to go where other passengers using words like "mu" and "nu" with each other had sent him. No problem."

This is a true story : Some colleagues and I who where on a multi-disciplinary team researching ways of interfering with a particular pathway in arthritis went to a meeting with some foreign colleagues. On the way from the airport we were discussing in some depth some ideas we'd had on the rather long flight. When we came to pay the taxi open on his dash was a textbook relating rather too closely to our discussions ( which were rather confidential ). It turned out the taxi-driver was a PhD student of Immunology and had probably understood far too much. Luckily (?) we killed off this project shortly after.

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Did I miss the mentions of Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking ..?

My brother went to a lecture by Stephen Hawking. Claims he understood everything up to and including "Can you hear me at the back?".

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Bronze badge

"Boffin" was once defined to me as "really really smart guy" by a professor who liked WWII slang (which is as far as "boffin" ever got in the US).

I personally like to imagine that the root word is "boff" and thus "boffin" is anybody who likes butt sex.

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Management types wearing freshly laundered Stay-White lab-coats over sharp suits need not apply. You are NOT a scientist.

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Anonymous Coward

Ownership and proper use of an HP-65 calculator or similar device

Simples, innit?

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Silver badge
Boffin

Re: Ownership and proper use of an HP-65 calculator or similar device

s/HP-65/slide rule/

It was only introduced in 1974; and this condition would thus exclude such eminent boffins as Barnes Wallis and Oppenheimer. Scientists from the 17th century and further back, such as Da Vinci and Archimedes, do not need to meet this requirement to qualify. Other ways of identifying boffinry may be equally hard for this pre slide rule era, but at least Archimedes has been reported running through the streets stark naked. How's that for dress sense?

There, fixed that for you (where's the duct-tape-and-zipties icon?)

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An Outsider Who Won

Less than a hundred years ago, every scientist, professor, textbook, politician, and student believed the universe was made of but one galaxy, the Milky Way. Those things that looked like galaxies in telescopes and photographic images were defined as "galactic nebulae". The universe was also collapsing according to the them. Mind you there was absolutely no disputing this, it was 100% proven, factual, anointed by all the world's scientists, and taught to all students.

Except one, a Louisville schoolteacher who said there were millions of galaxies and proved their existence; and the evidence of an expanding universe with his red-shift observations.

His name was Edwin Hubble. There's a contraption named after him.

He is the epitome of a boffin.

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Anonymous Coward

Boffin != Baffin

Which is of course a sea bird from Baffin Island.

Easy to confuse though.

I'd also suggest that a Boffin has to be a bloke. Don't know why, I think that's just how it is.

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Are we not missing something? To my mind, there are (at least) two sorts of boffins, regular, and "back room". Current discussion clearly leans to the definition of regular boffins, but my experiences have left me with lifelong memories of the latter, who are either confined to the back rooms because of security concerns, or their social skills. Experiences cover RAF in mid '60's, then ESRO (European Space Research Agency, which mutated into ESA (European Space Agency) until retirement in 2008.

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Simply "Has worn a white coat at work". The boffin doesn't always do so, but when so attired looks appropriately comfortable. Stains optional but highly recommended. Worn and tattered optional, but gains extra credibility.

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Haven't had time to read through all the previous comments, but true boffinery should involve a certain amount of "Shed-idity". This could be an institutional shed, like the Bletchley Park huts, or domestic, Barnes Wallis building catapults at home come to mind. It probably also involves a certain amount of sticky tape, and possibly string as well.

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Bronze badge

Boffins...

read textbooks (any field) linearly, for interest's sake.

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The best movie representation of a boffin...

Dr. Emmett Lathrop "Doc" Brow

'Back to The Future' - need i say more?

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Experimenters

A Boffin would be more interested in and excited by why the experiment failed, than unhappy that it had failed.

His Boffin-ness Magnus Pyke once calculated how fast a white transit-type van had to go to be jumped over a stream. On live TV the van was driven at the required speed over the ramp and nose dived beautifully into the middle of the flowing water. Pyke was really excited by this failure and suddenly realised he had accidentally omitted air resistance from his calculations!

I submit this is a necessary, altough perhaps not sufficient, condition for the title of 'Boffin'.

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Angel

Boffins are (at least partly) engineers...

I think that a boffin has to have at least a bit of engineer in them as well as scientist. Not only do they see how their solution applies to a problem but they are able to knock up a working protoype (obviously in the sheds mentioned above). They also work in the real world; they are looking for solutions to real world problems and applying science (sometimes at right-angles!) to that problem. Of course, sometimes the line of thinking will produce something that doesn't solve the problem at hand but may have applications in a totally different field! Certainly when the word was originally coined it referred to those whose task was "crack the enemy's code", "shorten the war", "get our tanks safely across the beaches" (Hobart was a boffin!) or similarly broad objectives. The objective can be self-set or externally driven.

I would include people like the NASA team who had to solve the problem of the incompatible CO2 scrubbers on the Apollo 13 mission as boffins.

A boffin is a divine being, obviously....

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