The more complex the mind, the greater the need for play. Okay, I ripped that off from Star Trek, episode 15, but I like to think the conceit applies to the Scientific American community of readers, writers, editors and authors. Any fan of science and technology must have a curious mind.
Of course, you probably don’t visit our website or subscribe to our magazine for the jokes. But over the years, we’ve occasionally allowed ourselves to indulge in that April 1 tradition of sneaking in a piece designed purely to entertain our readers with trickery—or maybe to annoy them, if they didn’t get the joke.
The earliest shenanigans I found comes from April 1975, when the inimitable Martin Gardner, the long-time “Mathematical Games” columnist, recapped “six sensational discoveries that somehow or another have escaped public attention.” They included the refutation of relativity theory and the disclosure that Leonardo da Vinci invented the flush toilet. “To my amazement, thousands of readers failed to recognize the column as a joke,” Gardner wrote in his review of mathematical recreations in the August 1998 issue. In their letters to the editor, some readers confessed to spending days coloring an accompanying map in an effort to uphold the four-color theorem, which states that no more than four colors are needed to color a map such that no two adjacent regions are the same color. (Gardner stated that the map needed five colors.)
One of Gardner’s successors, A.K. Dewdney, continued the tradition. In his April 1989 “Computer Recreations” column, Dewdney described “a matter fabricator” that “provides matter for thought.” The column suggested that cutting an 8-by-8-inch square into four pieces and then reassembling them into a 5-by-13-inch rectangle creates an excess amount. Apply the cuts to a gold bar, and you increase your wealth instantly. Readers had to examine the accompanying illustration closely to see how the reassembly was faked. A clue that the column was a joke was the purported inventor of the cuts, one named Arlo Lipof—an amalgam of April Fool.
The tomfoolery spread to other sections, although we tried to make the joke a little more obvious so that no one felt totally duped in the end. For the “Amateur Scientist” column in the April 1995 issue, we did a mock computer restoration of a child’s refrigerator paintings. I had one of the editor’s daughters do a vague copy of Christina’s World to show that a computer can interpret primitive lines into what an artist really intends. (The issue contained a real article called “The Art Historian’s Computer.”) It was so over-the-top that I am fairly certain everyone got it, although I did field a phone call later asking to confirm it as a joke.
In April 2002, we mocked our “50, 100 and 150 Years Ago” section, changing it to “50, 100 and 150 Million Years Ago.” It included a bit about an incoming asteroid.
The boldest move came in 2005, when the joke moved to the magazine’s front editorial page (now called “The Science Agenda”). After an editorial board meeting in which we discussed what to do for the April issue, then editor-in-chief John Rennie penned the now famous “Okay, We Give Up” column. In it, John confesses that we heard all those “helpful letter writers” urging us to “stick to science” and that we were stung by “accusations that the magazine should be renamed Unscientific American, or Scientific Unamerican, or even Unscientific Unamerican.” We “admitted” that we let “fancy fossils” dazzle us into accepting Darwinism and not creationism and promised that we would strive to achieve “balance” in our coverage. Lest any reader took us seriously, the piece ended by noting that we would begin that new effort on April Fools’ Day.
The faux-torial attracted a lot of attention, even catching the eye of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who mentioned it in his April 5, 2005, op-ed. A few angry readers wrote in, admitting that they bought the editorial until the very end. But most readers loved it. One fan even wrote she wanted to have our baby. (That didn’t happen as far as I know.)
In case you’re wondering: no, there is no April Fools’ Day joke on our site. Really. I promise.
Okay, We Give Up (April 2005 issue)