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February 2011

Unicorns in science writing? Oh, yeah.

Einhornhoehle4 I’m a science writer, which means I don’t get to write about unicorns all that often. I did this week, however, thanks to an ongoing debate over “realism” in the world of biomedical ontology. I don’t want to get into the details, but suffice it to say, the debaters use unicorns as a hypothetical.

That got me wondering: How often do unicorns turn up in legitimate science papers, like the one I referenced in the Science Careers story? I did a quick search of Google Scholar and PubMed and -- guess what! -- they rear their heads more than you’d imagine.

Here are a few examples:

Spatial Distribution of the Montane Unicorn
Stuart H. Hurlbert
Oikos, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Aug., 1990), pp. 257-271

This is the only paper that really fleshes out the unicorn as a hypothetical in an argument. And by “flesh out,” I mean, “pretend they’re real.”

Excerpt: Analysis of the spatial distribution patterns of five populations of the recently
discovered montane unicorn (Monoceros montanus) yield several surprising results.
Principal among these is the fact that when censused using a grid of 1 km2 quadrats all
populations yielded a variance:mean ratio of 1.0, though each population showed a
different pattern of aggregation and none correponded to a Poisson distribution.
Distributions with these mathematical properties are termed unicornian.

Greg Atkinson, Jim Waterhouse, Thomas Reilly, and Ben Edwards
Chronobiology International Jan 2001, Vol. 18, No. 6: 1041–1053.

So, wait: You’re telling me unicorn milk is not real? I’ve seen unicorn meat online.

Excerpt: Few chronobiologists may be aware of the regression-to-the-mean (RTM) statistical artifact, even though it may have far-reaching influences on chronobiological data. With the aid of simulated measurements of the circadian rhythm phase of body temperature and a completely bogus stimulus (unicorn milk), we explain what RTM is and provide examples relevant to chronobiology. We show how RTM may lead to erroneous conclusions regarding individual differences in phase responses to rhythm disturbances and how it may appear as though unicorn milk has phase-shifting effects and can successfully treat some circadian rhythm disorders.

A Unicorn in the Garden and Unicorns Revisited
Franklin W Stahl
Nature, Volume 335, Issue 6186, pp. 112-113 (1988).
Genetics. 1992 December; 132(4): 865–867

The word "unicorn" seems to get used fairly frequently in genetics to represent rare mutations.

Excerpt: How did unicorns get into the act (STAHL1988, 1990)? In defense of Nature’s investigation of analytical procedures in BENVENISTE’S laboratory (DAVENAS
et al. 1988), THE AMAZING RANDI said “...what would you do if I said ‘I keep a unicorn in my back yard?’’ (MADDOX, RANDI and STEWART 1988). RANDI may have been alluding to JAMES THURBER’S delightful short story. My allusion was to RANDI’S rhetorical question, which invited the answer, “I would climb over the fence to have a look!”

Problem Corner: The Lion and the Unicorn
H.J. Ohlbach and M. Schmidt-Schauss
Journal of Automated Reasoning, Volume 1, Number 3, 327-332

Hey, whaddya know? Unicorns come up again here in a topic related to ontologies: automated reasoning.

Excerpt: We will use the ‘lion and unicorn’ example to illustrate two different methods for simulating this behavior in an automated theorem prover.

Research into the origins and characteristics of unicorns: mental illness as the unicorn.
L. Simon
Ethical Hum Sci Serv. 2000 Fall-Winter;2(3):181-92.

What would a blog post about unicorns and science be without something on mental illness? Unfortunately, the abstract doesn’t make it clear what exactly this paper has to do with unicorns.

Excerpt: Basic research, particularly into the psychological and neurological underpinnings of schizophrenia and other "mental illnesses," is flawed because of its adherence to the ideology that unwanted, hard-to-understand behavior constitutes true medical illness. It is argued here that psychiatric diagnostic terms represent moral judgments rather than medical entities.

S. Trotter
Science. 1908 Oct 30;28(722):608-9.

Here’s a paper that’s more than a century old. (Thanks, Science, for putting your archives online.) I’ve excluded other papers about the history of unicorns and science, but I’m including this one on the grounds of its age and the fact that the author’s name is “Trotter.”

Excerpt: It remains to determine, if possible, what species of “Asiatic ruminant” can stand sponsor for the fabulous creature. … Such a beast, I think, may be seen in the male Nilghai.

My editor almost didn’t let me get away with the unicorn mention, but in the end she did because, as she said, “there aren’t enough unicorns in science writing.” That’s true, but doesn’t this list (which is seriously incomplete) suggest that there could be many, many more?

(Photo by Roman Klementschitz, Vienna, from Wikimedia Commons)