Bring Out Your Dead!

By Mark Trodden | April 30, 2006 6:49 pm

One of our “missions” here at Cosmic Variance is to provide a glimpse into the lives of working scientists and to demonstrate (hopefully, to some extent) that academics are normal people.

A while ago, I wrote a post titled Debate a Dead Scientist – A Cunning Strategy, about a creationist class, dressed up as a philosophy course, in which part of the proposed curriculum was that Francis Crick (who was already dead) would speak to the class as an evolution expert. I made a bit of fun of this while commenting on how fraudulent it was.

That post prompted my good friend Chris Kyle to point out to me that academics – those normal people, we’d have you believe – can be even freakier when it comes to trotting out the dead.

Chris sent me links to the University College London Bentham Project, in which, as it says on the main site

At the end of the South Cloisters of the main building of UCL stands a wooden cabinet, which has been a source of curiosity and perplexity to visitors.

The cabinet contains Bentham’s preserved skeleton, dressed in his own clothes, and surmounted by a wax head.

The full story is here if you’re interested. But the part that I find hilarious, and totally demolishes my hope of convincing you that academics are normal is

Not surprisingly, this peculiar relic has given rise to numerous legends and anecdotes. One of the most commonly recounted is that the Auto-Icon regularly attends meetings of the College Council, and that it is solemnly wheeled into the Council Room to take its place among the present-day members. Its presence, it is claimed, is always recorded in the minutes with the words Jeremy Bentham – present but not voting. Another version of the story asserts that the Auto-Icon does vote, but only on occasions when the votes of the other Council members are equally split. In these cases the Auto-Icon invariably votes for the motion.

Oh well.

  • bittergradstudent

    And one wonders why John Stuard Mill had a mental breakdown at 18

  • Moshe

    You were aiming at “normal” image all this time? and I was reading it as “delightfully eccentric”, my mistake. Disregard all these comments then.

  • Jennifer Ouellette

    For those of us with a pronounced streak of the macabre, this is the Coolest Tradition Ever. The preserved remains of Jeremy Bentham are welcome on my blog any time… even if he has precious little to say :)

  • janet

    The science museum in Florence has the bones of one of Galileo’s fingers in a sort of reliquary. I almost choked when I saw it.

  • candace

    The auto-icon, if anything, is considered less of a freakshow and more of a mascot at UCL. I walk past the thing quite often, and if you stop and have a look, it just looks like a badly-arranged mannequin. Next to the cabinet are plaques that de-bunk a lot of the myths around the auto-icon: KCL never played football with the head, for instance, even though this is oft-repeated legend.

    Honestly, it’s kind of cool. My mom came for a visit and I was showing her and her friend around the campus where so much of my time is spent and one of the places we headed straight for was to show her Bentham. Sadly, the cabinet was locked. They were really quite disappointed!

    Anyway, it’s weird, but I think the students at UCL regard it less as creepy and more as funny and eccentric. Besides, as a point of distinction, who else has a corpse as the unofficial mascot? It’s sort of a long-running in-joke if anything. (My husband insists that hardly anyone knows it’s there if they are unconnected to UCL. He calls it ‘just one of those weird London things.’)

    So, in summary: the auto-icon — cool or creepy? More considered cool.

  • Mark

    I’d agree with all that candace.

  • Johan Richter

    And what terrible thing it is, not to be normal, right? Lets aim at convincing everyone we’re normal instead of suggesting that differing from the median is not a capital offence.

  • Mark

    That’s right Johan – that’s exactly what I meant by the serious tone of my post.

  • Sean

    I’ve seen plenty of people at faculty meetings who are just like that. But they have less of an excuse than Bentham.

  • spyder

    Sort of reminds me of the preservation of Leland Stanford Jr’s last breakfast on the campus at the University named in his honor by his father. Though the charnel houses, found throughout central Europe, probably represent all manner of historical relations to the practice of using the remains of the dead (viscerally and psychically) to speak to us.

  • Spatulated

    hahaha, i love whehn colleges have awsomely weird things about them. it makes my day.

  • Cynthia

    Janet – a comment to your comment#4: Peter W. Atkins aptly describes the objective side of science through the symbol of Galileo’s Finger. In contrast, I will point out the creative side of science through the symbol of Kepler’s Eye.


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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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