It often takes decades of groundbreaking research to become renowned in a scientific field. But it’s taken Luke, a 15-year-old in Colorado, a month. He hasn’t, though, published any papers on theoretical physics or offered a novel approach to combat climate change — in fact, he has little interest in science at all.
Yet since creating a Twitter account (@scienceshitpost) dedicated to “science diagrams that look like shitposts,” the high school sophomore wields influence over 276,000 people. Meanwhile, the Facebook group from which he migrated boasts 200,000 members. Both were created earlier this month, and both are skyrocketing in popularity. “The shitpost diagrams are really funny,” he explains, while admitting he has no idea why they’re so funny. “I especially love the ‘no fear’ duck, that’s why it’s my pinned post.”
According to Don Caldwell, editor in chief of Know Your Meme, this isn’t necessarily all that new. Science diagrams have been going viral since the days of Advice Animals, but they were rare since their shareability largely had to do with what jokes could be added around the image. The latest viral science diagrams, on other hand, have much to do with the arrival “shitposting.” That is, as Caldwell puts it, a specific type of trolling “where you straddle the line of appearing earnest, but with a tinge of absurdity.”
Basically, out-of-context scientific diagrams achieve the shitposter’s ultimate goal, because much like wikiHow shitposting, these images are derived from places of authority, where they’re dealing with serious subject matter in a serious fashion. “But take the diagrams out of their source material and that’s all flipped on its head,” Caldwell continues. It’s both painstakingly serious and utterly absurd at the same time.
Lauren Boots, an admin of the “Science Diagrams That Look Like Shitposts” Facebook group, says the best science diagram-turned-shitpost is one that’s so absurd out-of-context, it makes you think, How on earth is this scientific?
Still, that argument only gets you so far. After all, if every scientific diagram made for a good shitpost, it wouldn’t be long until every such diagram ever was reposted as a meme. Thus, shitposting ingredient #2: the scientists themselves.
According to Sam Novario, a nuclear physicist in Tennessee, there has long existed “something like a shitposting tradition” in the scientific community — particularly physics. Novario specifically references inside jokes within the theoretical physicist community like “the spherical cow,” and adds that “physics terms have always seemed like they came from a troll. In medicine, chemistry and biology, terms are long strings of Latin affixes. But in physics, we have quarks, gluons, squarks, gluinos, WIMPs, white dwarfs and black holes. Those terms seem like shitposts to me by themselves.”
Alex Klotz, a physics professor at California State University, Long Beach, agrees. “Basically, it comes down to the fact that many scientists, like much of the populace in general, are trolls who love memes. Plus, there are very few opportunities to express creativity or humor, [so] having silly figures in papers is a way around that.”
As a specific example, Klotz cites the table of contents on journal websites. “These have very little review or editorial oversight, so people will post diagrams in the form of cartoons, memes or dicks (intentional and unintentional). It can get ridiculous,” he says. “There’s even a Tumblr that keeps track of them.”
That said, the absurdity can’t go overboard. And so, although some shitposts are derived from actual shitposts, there’s one last variable needed to find shitpost equilibrium: earnestness. “I’d say a lot of times the source material is really trying to take boring subject matter and make it visually striking or entertaining in some way,” says Caldwell. “So there’s an earnest, creative energy put behind them,” which makes it particularly fun when it goes wrong.
Novario believes this ultimately comes down to “rough translations from a basically uncompensated professor to an under-compensated, non-accredited art student, all of which happened 30 years ago. Because the textbooks have just recycled the same 1970s graphics year after year to keep things cheap.”
“I might be able to visualize some complex system in my head, but if I can’t articulate that in terms you understand, you’ll never learn it,” Novario continues. “As a result, you get something like multiplying pants [see above], where academics are awkwardly trying to relate extremely obscure topics (topology) to everyday life (pants).”
Not to mention, Caldwell adds, “There’s just something funny about pants, too.”