In a groundbreaking presentation at MIT last year, doctoral student Tomer Ullman noted decades of research into babies crying. It had long been known to increase fight or flight response and a 2012 Oxford University study had just shown “infant distress vocalizations [to] enhance effortful motor activity” (hearing babies wailing improved whack-a-mole scores). Ullman then announced his revolutionary theory: Babies cry so obnoxiously because their toteable size makes them the ultimate military accessory. Warriors who brought them to battle would fight harder.
This theory is, of course, incredibly stupid.
Ullman was presenting at the first now-annual BAHfest, a celebration (and competition) of silly, Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses in evolution created by Zach Weinersmith, the cartoonist behind web comic “Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.” It returns to MIT on Oct. 19.
“Science presentations are a platform for comedy no one had used before,” says Weinersmith, who presented his own theory about infantapaulting. “I picked evolutionary biology because it’s understandable by everyone.”
Ullman’s presentation took first prize – a bust of Darwin begrudgingly shrugging.
“The secret was to present something that kinda, almost, sorta made sense in as serious a tone as possible,” Ullman says.
His seriousness is what sold his presentation. The citations – even the bafflingly scientific phrase “infant distress vocalization” – were entirely real.
Most of the applicants for the competition are grad students. Ullman, for one, got involved in the contest in the most grad student way possible.
“I had a more important paper I was supposed to be writing,” he says. “So I did this instead.”
Other presentations included speculation into why fish had never evolved higher intelligence — preventing existential crisis from their utter pointlessness. All and all, it was a bigger success than even Weinersmith could have anticipated.
The debut event was supposed to take place in a 50 seat auditorium. Due to an unanticipated rescheduling caused by the marathon bombing, BAHfest one was moved to a 500 seat near-arena. To Weinersmith’s surprise, the event filled nonetheless.
This year’s BAHfest will be bigger and better. Bigger now that Weinersmith sees enough interest to expand: He’s now hosting separate contests on both coasts. Better now that more people get it’s a joke.
“The first time, a lot of people didn’t get the idea,” said Weinersmith. “We got a lot of submissions saying ‘I think this idea might be true.’”
Weinersmith insists there is no greater point to the humor than silliness. It’s not intended to mock the implausibility or constant ad-hoc-ness of evolutionary theories (“I’d hope no one is holding back ideas because of us”, he says) and his greatest fear is that creationists see it as an opportunity to say the show proves their point.
But the line between earnestly joking and publishable science is slim.
“A few weeks after I did my presentation, I saw a real paper ‘Babies cry to prevent siblings,’” Ullman says.
If you go
Sunday, 7 p.m.
48 Mass. Ave., Cambridge
See below for last year’s winning presentation.