Etal Tells All: An Exclusive Interview With the World’s Most Prolific Scientist

Mike Dubik, M.D., and Brian Wood, M.D.
Eastern Virginia Medical School


As everyone knows, there is no more frequently referenced author in the sciences, arts, and humanities than Etal. Although often quoted, he is rarely seen outside his mythical ivory tower. Dr. Etal has granted us this rare and exclusive interview.


Dr. Etal, please tell us about yourself.

Only the shallow know themselves. (Wilde, O.)


Well, tell us about your beginnings.

It is popular today to say that we have found the child within us. For me, this would be a short search. (Cosby, B.) I was the kid next door’s imaginary friend. (Philips, E.)


Why have you avoided interviews until now?

I’m afraid of losing my obscurity. Genuineness only thrives in the dark. Like celery. (Huxley, A.)


We have noticed over the years that you are a senior investigator in innumerable articles in diverse areas of science, medicine, humanities, and the arts. We are intrigued and astounded by your productivity. How do you explain your expertise in so many fields?

Do everything. One thing may turn out right. (Bogart, H.)


To our knowledge you are not the first author on any major research paper. Why?

I allow my junior colleagues to enjoy principal authorship. Besides, there are only two kinds of researchers: those who do the work and those who take the credit. I try to be in the first group; there is less competition. (Gandhi, I.)


What do you hope to accomplish as a research scientist?

I hope to obtain grant money, of course. After all, it is better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating. (Wilde, O.)


Have you ever had any bureaucratic hassles getting your work published?

If you’re going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won’t. (Rickover, H.G.)


That almost sounds bitter, doctor.

Not really. I never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. (Hanlon)


We take it you have an opinion on government regulation of scientific research.

Indeed. I have found that when I work directly for the government I spend more and more time reporting on my work and less and less time actually working. On some projects I have achieved a steady state wherein I continually report on work that is not getting done. (Anon)


Have you found the “publish or perish” world of academic research to be a rat race?

Yes, and even when you win, you’re still a rat. (Tomlin, L.)


Do you enjoy your work?

I know it’s dangerous to enjoy your work too much (Snoopy) but, for me, work is much more fun than fun. (Coward, N.)


Do you feel your work is important?

I have come to realize that an early symptom of approaching mental illness is the belief that one’s work is terribly important. If you consider your work very important you should take a day off. (Russell, B.)


How do you get your ideas?

The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas. (Pauling, L.)


You don’t seem to have slowed down at all over the years. How have you stayed so active?

You’re never too old to do goofy stuff (Cleaver, W.). Besides, when you’re over the hill, you begin to pick up speed. (Schulz, C.)


How has science academia changed over the years?

Just because things are different doesn’t mean anything has changed. (Porter, I.)


That’s an interesting judgment.

Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment. (Anon)


You have been called one of the world’s leading authorities on a wide variety of subjects.

Yes. As an expert I know tremendous amounts about very little. (Butler, N.M.)


We think it is fair to say that you are a heroic figure to scientists and researchers everywhere.

Maybe. But no one is a hero to his valet (Nietzsche, F.W.) or his spouse’s psychiatrist. (Berne, E.)


Do you have any general advice for your fellow scientists?

Yes. When you have a lot to do, get your nap over with first. (Anderson, J.) Also, never play cat and mouse games if you’re a mouse. (Dickson, P.) But, then again, no generalization is wholly true, not even this one. (Holmes, O.W.) Besides, no one wants advice – only corroboration. (Steinbeck, J.)


Do you have any words of encouragement for budding scientists?

Always look out for number one and be careful not to step in number two. (Dangerfield, R.)


You’re a strong proponent of education.

Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten. (Skinner, B.F.) So, I’m always ready to learn, though often I don’t like being taught. (Churchill, W.)


So does everyone need to learn science?

One does not need to know science but he should at least have forgotten it. (Brander, M.)


Well then what is science all about?

The term science should not be given to anything but the aggregate of the recipes that are always successful. All the rest is literature. (Valery, P.)


Why did you choose science as a career?

I like simple things. My mother recognized this tendency in me early and when she heard that science is the art of systematic over-simplification (Popper, K.), she figured I was a natural.


You also teach?

Yes, and the hardest part has always been to keep the students awake. For every academic required to teach there are at least thirty reluctant students required to take the class, ready to be bored. (Sellar, W.C.)


What is the hardest subject you’ve taught?

Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig. (Anon)


How was the pay as a teacher?

I was certainly overpaid as a teacher but I was ludicrously underpaid as a babysitter. (Osborne, J.)


Have you also served as an administrator?

Yes. At various institutions and everywhere I was confronted by the same three problems: sex and rock & roll for the students; sports for the alumni; and parking for the faculty. (Kerr C.)


How do you balance being a scientist, teacher, and administrator?

Simple. On good days I’m a scientist; on not so good days, I teach; and on really bad days, when I can’t teach, I administrate. (Shaw, G.B.)


What do researchers need to know these days?

It is better to know some of the questions than all the answers. (Thurber, J.)


Is there anyone to whom you owe your success?

I’m a self-made man, which shows what happens when you don’t follow instructions. (Hoest, B.)


As we wind up the interview, are there any other observations you would like to share?

Yes. If dandelions were hard to grow, they would be most welcome on any lawn. (Mason, A.V.) Eighty percent of life is just showing up. (Allen, W.) Oh, yes, and spend the afternoon, you can’t take it with you. (Dillard, A.)


What are your research interests now?

I’d like to know how a committee can make a decision dumber than any of its members. (Coblitz, D.B.) I’d like to know why life can’t present all its problems when you’re 17 and know all the answers. (Jolly, A.C.)


One last question. What does it all mean, Dr. Etal?

I don’t know, I don’t care, and it doesn’t make any difference. (Kerouac, J.)


So, what’s the answer doctor?

There ain’t no answer. There ain’t going to be any answer. There never has been an answer. That’s the answer. (Stein, G.)


We tend to agree.

Well then, if we are in complete agreement then I propose that we postpone further interviewing to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding and insight into what we are talking about. (Sloan, A.P.)

© Copyright 1992 Wry-Bred Press, Inc./Glenn Ellenbogen. All rights reserved.

Return to the sample articles page