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Roger Revelle presenting the albatross award to Sir Edward Crisp Bullard.

When I used to walk across the University of Washington campus, I sometimes passed the window of a laboratory in which a large stuffed albatross was prominently displayed. This deceased bird was mysteriously placed in a large metal birdcage. The peculiarity of the spectacle was enhanced by the fact that the laboratory housing the bird was on the bottom floor of the Ocean Sciences Building – a place where one might not expect the display of an animal considered an ill omen by sailors ever since Coleridge warned us of the fate of the mariner who “with his cruel bow […] laid full low, The harmless Albatross.” My curiosity was piqued and some Google searching soon brought an explanation for this unusual exhibit.

The albatross, I learned, is much more significant than a disintegrating stuffed bird in a metal cage might at first suggest. It is, in fact, an oceanography prize that has been in existence since the late 1950s and which is awarded periodically by a group known as the American Miscellaneous Society (AMSOC). This elusive organization was once described in the journal Science as “a mildly loony, invisible college of otherwise mature academicians.”[1] The society’s motto, Illegitimi non carborundum, can loosely be translated as “don’t let the bastards grind you down.” And, according to AMSOC’s founders, the origin of the albatross award can be traced to one particular wine-lubricated dinner party in 1959 at the home of Gordon Lill, oceanographer with the Office of Naval Research in Washington, D.C.

Bemoaning the lack of awards available to oceanographers, Lill and his guests, including John Knauss of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, decided they would then and there remedy the problem. With the help of a stuffed albatross gathering dust in the collections of the Scripps Natural History Museum, the prize was founded. Only once did the National Science Foundation recognize AMSOC as an official organization, when AMSOC lent its support for project MOHOLE, an unrealized scheme to drill into the earth’s mantle. Suffice to say that AMSOC is a very elaborate running joke that has lived on for half a century.

Despite its humorous nature, however, the albatross award does recognize scientific achievement. In the words of one of the former recipients, the albatross award is given to “someone with an albatross-like ability to make conceptual leaps on the scale of an ocean.” And indeed there are many celebrated names among the past recipients: Walter Munk, John Swallow, Henry Stommel, Roger Revelle, and Sir George Deacon, to name but a few.

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One of the most sought-after prizes awarded at the annual Columbia History of Science Group meeting.

When I discovered the albatross award, I was reminded of other scientific “jokes” I’ve encountered over the years: the humorous songs composed at the Zoological Station at Naples, the dredging cartoons of Edward Forbes, and most recently a statue of Confucius which stands in the entrance hall of the Marine Biological Laboratories. No doubt there are many more out there. Humor, of course, is not limited to marine scientists. While I write this I am traveling to the Columbia History of Science Group meeting which takes place every year at the Friday Harbor marine station – a gathering with a long running tradition of humorous awards.

In my experience it is not uncommon to find relics of humor in the archival record; but what historical value can be gleaned from jokes? If we’re lucky we can also hope to find some indication of who “got” the joke. Writing in 1960, sociologist Rose Laub Coser argued that humor “can be understood only by examining its content and themes in the context of the network of role relationships among those who laugh together.”[2] In other words, those who laugh together form a network of relations and may then more easily see themselves as colleagues. Or, perhaps, only those who are a part of the community already are able to understand the joke. Thus, once we historians take on the task of understanding the joke, then the make-up of an otherwise invisible community may become suddenly apparent.

Historians of oceanography periodically debate who and what qualifies as oceanography. The reason we so often have this debate is that the marine sciences, and “oceanography” institutions and departments, encapsulate specialists in many different fields of study. Eric Mills has written that oceanography “does not lend itself to neat formulations, scientific or historical.”[3] However, by searching for archived humor, we historians may find other sign posts to guide our demarcations of the communities of marine scientists we study. Perhaps by following the wandering journey of a long deceased albatross we may learn something about who and what oceanographers understand to fall within the nebulous disciplinary boundaries of oceanography.

Notes:

[1] R. G., “Do Oceanographers Have More Fun?,” Science, Vol. 181, Issue 4103 (7 Sept. 1973), 926.

[2] Rose Laub Coser, “Laughter Among Colleagues,” Psychiatry, Vol. 23, Issue 1 (1960).

[3] Eric Mills, “The History of Oceanography: Introduction,” Earth Sciences History, Vol. 12, Issue 1 (1993).

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