The Archives of Potentially Amusing Scientific Images (TAPASI)

Wherein serious but silly scientific images are archived.

A few months ago, I was having lunch with Sarah Creem-Reger at a conference at UofR. Somehow, the conversation got around to publishing and I relayed a story told to me by Irv Biederman about a conflict he had with some JEP editors about a figure he and Maggie Shiffrar wanted to include in a paper. I mentioned that I had a collection of my favorite article illustrations and Professor Creem-Reger asked me about some of my other favorites. This is the story of one such favorite and my offering of more such stories, irregularly, in the future.

The paper in question is about perceptual learning, and the image was ‘modified’ from a 1948 paper on chicken sexing. As it turns out, there are people out there who are really really good at determining the gender of baby chicks by just looking at them. They wanted to figure out how they did it (they did, read the paper), if it could be easily taught (it seems like it), and if it generalizes to other sorts of tasks (again, depending).

The caption from the Biederman & Shiffrar paper reads —

An accepted grasp for chick sexing. (Modified from “Chick Sexing” by J. H. Lunn, 1948, American Scientist, 36, pp. 280-287. Copyright 1948 by the American Scientist Photograph by the University of Minnesota Photographic Laboratory. Adapted by permission.)

The original image from Lunn (1948) shows the ‘correct hand grip for chicken sexing’, before adaptation —

How to hold a chick for proper sexing.

and Irv and Maggie’s adaptation includes a bar over the eyes of the baby chick to preserve the anonymity of the fondled fowl —

Anonymized chick.

Apparently the editors of JEP:LMC lacked a proper sense of humor or perhaps an overly serious position on humor in science. Thus, they did not want to publish the modified version (note that the peer review of the science found the work well done and relevant / interesting to the field)

An update from Irv —

 It wasn’t the editor(s) of JEP: L, M, & C that stirred a bit. Roddy Roediger (the Editor) and the reviewers had no problem whatsoever with the photo. It was a woman from APA who called (perhaps from APA’s central publications office) asking me if I wanted the picture published as it was submitted. Of course I said “Yes, that I had put the black bar there.” I never pressed her as to her reason for calling. It was an era where some were confusing sex with sexist and, if memory serves, she might have voiced a vague phrase or two along those lines but perhaps felt that she did not have a winning hand (it was chickens!) and let the matter go.

This resulted in the publication of this, my favorite potentially silly scientific image. Irv and Maggie have done so much important work over the years and I encourage you to check them out. I can also assure you that Irv’s sense of humor remains unscathed.

More soon…

NB – I plan on adding items from my ‘silly images’ folder irregularly in the coming months. If you have anything that is worthy, please let me know at


Biederman, I., & Shiffrar, M. M. (1987). Sexing day-old chicks: A case study and expert systems analysis of a difficult perceptual-learning task. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 13(4), 640–645.

Lunn, J. H. (1948). Chick sexing. American Scientist, 36(2), 280-287.