back to article So, what exactly defines a 'boffin'? Speak your brains...

The recent protest by computer scientist Yossi Oren of Columbia University that he hadn't been hailed as a boffin here at El Reg prompted some lively debate at Vulture Central as what exactly defines the term. Some of us, while conceding that scientists such as Oren are indeed clever chaps, felt that his area of expertise …


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  1. smartypants

    A plea: bring back real boffins on TV!

    I grew up in a world where people could get on telly even if they had bad teeth and raging nostril hair, just as long as they knew something about something. Science programmes weren't afraid to explain something and expect you to try to keep up, and they didn't need to feature the presenter's best loved holiday destinations to explain gravity.

    Now (with some odd exceptions) we get people like Kate Humble who come on 'science' programmes to tell us that the earth is 'At Risk' on account of its orbit in the solar system.

    No. She doesn't have raging nasal hair issues. Yes, she has big eyes and lovely blonde hair. But please can we have some real boffins back on telly, and please can they look like real people (or better still, like the boffins of old) and please can they be given the chance to write a programme that doesn't have to assume it's talking to the very most stupid person in the country? Even when cool hipsters like Brian Cox get on telly, they have to write a programme so dumbed down so our goldfish can keep up, being as it is just a random collection of pretty graphics and lovely skies.

    If they can stretch the audience with Only Connect, why not for something a bit more useful, like wot boffins do?

    1. The Brave Sir Robin

      Re: A plea: bring back real boffins on TV!

      We need a Magnus Pyke and a Heinz Wolff for the 21st century. Bring back "The Great Egg Race".

      1. EddieD

        Re: A plea: bring back real boffins on TV!

        And David Bellamy, with a side order of Johnny Ball....and maybe James Burke...ah nostalgia, the only thing cable TV is good for

        Back then, the presenters radiated enthusiasm and it was infectious.

        I've just been watching the historical Horizons on iPlayer - and the older ones are far, far better. No music, no elaborate locations, no fancy-schmancy camera work - just good old fashioned science.

        1. Fogcat

          Re: A plea: bring back real boffins on TV!

          Ahh.. I remember watching this when I was a youngster, Jacob Bronowski even sounds like a boffiny name. (I have the book as well, presented at school prize day, for being a swot)

          That was when documentaries weren't afraid to have someone TALK to you and show the person doing the talking and didn't feel the need to have actors dressed up to do a historical re-enactment.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Thumb Up

          Re: A plea: bring back real boffins on TV!

          Upvote for James Burke.

          1. Benchops

            Re: A plea: bring back real boffins on TV!

            I used to love James Burke's programmes. Oddly though he was an English graduate and lecturer (I think) before getting into TV presenting. I suspect he got into science presentation from being on Tomorrow's World. However this was long before the autocue and probably script-writers so he definitely seemed to understand his stuff. Ideally that's what you want on telly for the masses -- someone who understands what they're saying and can string some words together not inelegantly;)

      2. The Brave Sir Robin

        Re: A plea: bring back real boffins on TV!

        Having said that... There should still be as much of Professor Alice Roberts on telly as it is possible to fit in. I feel that I learn an extraordinary amount from her.

    2. Lyndon Hills 1

      Re: A plea: bring back real boffins on TV!

      Like Quatermass

    3. Mark 85

      Re: A plea: bring back real boffins on TV!

      In the States, one of the earliest was Mr. Wizard. He'd do some experiments and then explain why it worked or didn't work. And all in glorious black and white with no graphics or music. When something really went wrong, you could hear the laughter of the crew in the background. But we did get a full dose of science even if it was to explain why something didn't work. Oh.. and it was live with repeats via the magic of kinescope.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Boffins are very pixelated magenta-skinned labcoat-wearing characters who wear glasses and carry a handy umbrella. Boffins like owls and dislike spiders. This informative nugget from Wikipedia:

    "The Boffin can only jump short distances, but he can fall from any height by opening his umbrella to slow his descent to a safe speed"

    1. NoneSuch Silver badge

      Barnes Wallis is the best boffin example I can think of. Developing not one, but a string of innovative aircraft and weapons that shortened the war by a significant amount.

      A boffin typically struggles against an ignorant establishment working on ideas seen as a waste of time by superiors. When proven right, he or she will get a curt acknowledgement and then be shunned for showing up the embarrassed "senior staffers" who thought they knew better. After they take some credit for themselves, of course.

      Innovation, determination, and a desire to make things better with science is my definition of boffins. They could work in a multi-billion dollar corporation or a shed.

      Boffins succeed in the face of endless, "That'll never work lad/lass."

  3. Neoc

    I would have thought one of the major requirements would be for the work they are doing to have the potential of discovering/creating something new.

    So - a metallurgist might end up being a boffin, but it's highly unlikely that an architect (no matter the number of degrees) does the same - most would be trick-cyclists.

    But what about middle-ground, say Astronomists? I'd say the one which simply look at telescopes are NOT boffins, but the ones who use said observations to come up with new theories (or better places to look) are boffins.


    1. Paul Crawford Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Agreed, to be a boffin you need to meet several requirements:

      1) To perform research in to something technical.

      2) Said research is to create something new and special (i.e. not just a slightly cheaper/faster phone or similar). Physics/astronomy theory might just get in there, but only if well beyond normal comprehension.

      3) Points 1 & 2 are more important to said boffin than "normal" social activities. Not to say they don't enjoy a pub, BBQ, or anything similar, but are quite likely to head back to test tube-bothering at unpredictable times.

    2. Cliff

      As long as the discoveries involve a lab coat and pipe, I think you've a valid point there. Boffinry certainly requires research.

      1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge


        I don't think Barnes Wallis wore a lab coat. And I'd say he was definitely a boffin. I think it's perfectly acceptable to wear a tweed jacket with leather elbow-patches and still attain boffinry. In fact, it rather goes with the pipe.

        Oh and architects are most definitely not boffins. They're mostly the bain of my working life...

        1. Grikath

          Don't forget to add an applicable shade of autism and a healthy disdain for "everybody knows" types of knowledge. Boffins will niggle at an idea if it appeals to them, no matter what anybody else thinks.

          If and when Boffins use statistics, they use it as a checking tool ( remember the Higgs 5-Sigma wait?....) , not as a means to an end.

          A true boffin will have a "shed" ( may range from actual shed to fully fledged transsylvanian castle + Igor) where he can and will pursue his passion if left unattended. This may be why they tend to have some form of in-house staff with full authority to run their lives, lest they forget to feed themselves.

          1. Sir Runcible Spoon

            They must certainly have a shed to 'potter in' over the weekend, so that they can 'knock something up' like a new form a jet engine or something (as in "Monday morning at the lab: Mr Boffin- Hey Gerald, come and have a look at this doobrey I knocked up over the weekend and see what you think"). What follows will probably a complete catastrophe of business sense (if they are British) and eventually some shark from the US will see it's potential, buy it and apply some solid business sense to it to start the next revolution in the application of science.

            I think it's mostly about attitude.

            If someone is really really clever and has lots of degrees and *knows* everything in the text books they are not a boffin, unless..

            they think outside the box, aren't afraid of looking stupid and have a healthy disrespect for 'form before content'.

            They can be a lot of different things, but 'normal' isn't one of them. That's essential.

        2. phuzz Silver badge

          What about Buckminster Fuller? He was an architect (of sorts) but still pretty boffin-y.

          I don't think we should hold designing the odd building against people, provided they've done more useful things in the their time as well.

        3. Eclectic Man Silver badge

          (Sir) Barnes (Neville) Wallis

          I am the proud possessor of a magazine featuring an aircraft designed by prof Wallis. He kindly signed the picture of him holding a model of said aircraft.

          His handwritig is really neat (as in completely legible).

          He appears to be wearing a tweed suit.

        4. Naughtyhorse


          Isn't the tweed jacket with leather elbow patches an early 20th century form of lab coat?

          Oh and I propose Alan Blumlein for archetypal boffin.

          unheard off (mostly)

          self taught (entirely)

          wide portfolio of unimaginably important inventions/discoveries (undoubtedly)

          like a latter-day Tesla.....

          Ooooh! Telsa!

          unheard of (pretty bloody famous akshualy!)........

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Astronomists vs Astronomers

      I would like to point at the key difference between

      - Astronomists who look AT telescopes and cannot be boffins.

      - Astronomers who look IN telescopes and can indeed be boffins

      Ps. After 10 years of contemplation of a telescope astronomists either reach enlightenment or finally realise how to use the bloody thing and become astronomer.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The Boffing Test

    A derivation of the Turing test for boffins whereby your average chap after a 10 minutes dialogue over a computer terminal is convinced that he has been talking to a machine or an extra terrestrial.

    Should you not have the equipment and time to conduct a full Boffing test, here are a few simpler techniques that may help you decide:

    - A boffin will light up at the name of Beckham - the famous polymer scientist.

    - A boffin will laugh unreservedly and without delay at the following joke "3 statisticians go duck hunting. The first one shoots too high and misses. The second one shoots too low and misses. The third one doesn't shoot and shouts - Ah ah got it!"

    - Anyone in a room answering from the top of their head questions like "Anyone remembers the rest energy of a W-Boson?" or "D4 and db2 wavelets are the same right?" is most likely a boffin (or could be a case of stephen fry trying to sound smart)

    - Conversely anyone giving you a blank look when words like Lindsay Lohan (Is he the chap doing molecular simulation at Imperial college?), Eastenders, or World Cup are mentioned is also likely to be a boffin (or a lost chinese tourist that doesn't understand a word of what you're saying).

    1. Steve Knox

      Re: The Boffing Test

      <i- Anyone in a room answering from the top of their head questions like "Anyone remembers the rest energy of a W-Boson?" or "D4 and db2 wavelets are the same right?" is most likely a boffin (or could be a case of stephen fry trying to sound smart)</i>

      To distinguish between a boffin and Stephen Fry at this point, check to see if their answer is actually correct.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: The Boffing Test

        "To distinguish between a boffin and Stephen Fry at this point, check to see if their answer is actually correct."

        Only another boffin can confirm if the first boffins answer is correct. Checking if Mr Fry is correct, on the other hand....

  5. Pete 2 Silver badge

    The socks have it

    It would be very easy to label a boffin with physical characteristics: Einstein's hair, Patrick Moore's dress sense (not that I'm suggesting Sir PM ever wore a dress), Brains from Thunderbirds glasses. However, that would be shallow.

    No. A true boffin would be a person who was wonderfully at home with all sorts of abstract notions. Who has a brain the size of a planet and is able to explain simple facts and phenomena in such complex and technical terms that no-one without and equally sized brain would have a clue what he/she/it was taking about. If they have to lapse into differential equations, tensor algebra or Schwartzian Transforms to "explain" - then so much the better.

    A true boffin would also be totally mystified by the inability of us ordinary folk to follow their descriptions and train of thought.

    One other thing that a boffin would always do, would be to require strict, technical, definitions and (of course) units of measurement to quantify whatever it is they are referring to - including their own boffinry. I would like to offer the Pyke as a unit of boffinry. 1 Pyke would adequately describe Dr. Magnus, himself. With perhaps a milli-Pyke being the level you attain by wearing mis-matched socks (and 2 mPyke for only wearing one sock). There could, of course, be negative values: attributed to individuals who not only didn't meet the requirements of boffinry, but who actually eschewed them. Being organised, pretty or understandable would count against and that's why there are so few boffins on TV any more.

    1. Paul Crawford Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: The socks have it

      I vote for the milli-Pyke as being a new El Reg measure!

    2. Paul Crawford Silver badge

      Magnus Pyke's genius

      I remember when he was asked what time is, and his answer was quick, funny, and at a deep level actually true: "Its the stuff produced by clocks"

    3. Lester Haines (Written by Reg staff) Gold badge

      Re: The socks have it

      I'd suggest amending that to the deci-Pyke, allowing a manageable ten levels leading up to a full Pyke.

      1. Gordon 10

        Re: The socks have it

        Plus one for the incomprehensible to mere mortals bit.

        I was lucky(?) enough to be taught Molecular Physics as a proto-boffin by the great boffin Harry Kroto.

        We were all 3rd year physics undergrads - not one of us understood a single word he said. The huddle around the teaching assistant who explained things to us mere mortals after class was the biggest I ever saw.

        Sadly I neglected my nascent boffinry career for one in IT.

      2. Paul Crawford Silver badge

        Re: The socks have it

        @Lester Haines - agreed, the deci-Pyke is better, and in keeping with the decibel.

        @Gray Ham - It helps to name things after dead folk, as there is no risk of them returning to a normal low-energy non-boffin state.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: The socks have it

          " agreed, the deci-Pyke is better, and in keeping with the decibel."

          So you're suggesting the Pyke scale should be logarithmic to needlessly overcomplicate things? Perfect :)

          1. Sir Runcible Spoon

            Re: The socks have it

            Whilst the Pyke should obviously be used to measure true Boffinry and the deciPyke for everyday Boffins, the milliPyke should be retained for those with a hint of Boffinry but are, at heart, fairly normal and can dress themselves without attracting undue attention..

            "I reckon I must have measured at least 3 milli-Pykes today when I came up with that method of transferring tomatoes across the canteen with a catapult and quad-copter combo"

            There should also be a negative scale, perhaps with an inverse logarithmic correlation - we could call it a Bimboid perhaps?

            1. Lester Haines (Written by Reg staff) Gold badge

              Re: Re: The socks have it


              "I reckon I must have measured at least 3 milli-Pykes today when I came up with that method of transferring tomatoes across the canteen with a catapult and quad-copter combo"

              I think that's a "2 deciPyke moment", the moment being a reference to passing flashes of minor boffinry, without actually having the credentials to merit a full, permanent score on the Pyke scale.

          2. Pete 2 Silver badge

            Re: The socks have it

            > the Pyke scale should be logarithmic

            Tricky one, for two reasons.

            First of all, is the scale additive or multiplicative? If one has a box in the lab shed marked "lasers: misc." that puts you somewhere on the scale. Likewise if you just happen to own a mass spectrometer (or have a penchant for high altitude balloons), you would also be on there, somewhere. However if you have both does that make you a boffin by the sum of those devices "boffinism" or does it imply a greater area of boffinism, hence multiplying (or adding the log()'s) of the individual contributions.

            Secondly, how would a logarithmic scale denote a person with zero boffinism? log(0) is not a defined value and there are no log()'s of negative values and log(<fraction>) comes out to be < 0.0.

            In the spirit of making things as complicated as necessary a logarithmic scale would need to be calculated something like:

            ($value == 0 ? 0 : sign($value) * log(abs($value+1))/log(2))

            Where the log(2) is a normalisation, so that a 1 Pyke boffin gets assigned a value of 1.0 - we wouldn't want them to be too Pyke-y, would we?

            1. Gordon 11

              Re: The socks have it

              there are no log()'s of negative values


              log(-1) == exp(iπ)·

              It's a way of writing Euler's Identity (look on Wikipedia).

              1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

                Re: The socks have it

                log(-1) == exp(iπ)·"

                Ur wot mate? iπ with my little eye, something beginning with 3

                <not a boffin, no sirree, but they get my respect and admiration>

      3. Zog_but_not_the_first

        Re: The socks have it

        That has to be a logarithmic scale, of course.

    4. Gray Ham

      An Australian response

      "I would like to offer the Pyke as a unit of boffinry"

      I must disagree ... the standard unit of boffinry is obviously the Kruszelnicki.

      Quite apart from the Ig Nobel prize and having an asteroid named after him, Dr Karl's line in shirts clearly qualifies him for this honour.

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The socks have it

      >able to explain simple facts and phenomena in such complex and technical terms

      I used to be able to do that after about 6 pints on a Friday night.

      Now I only need half a pint, if I ever again get to six pints I'd be totally unintelligible. Is this an indication that my boffinry is increasing or am I losing it?

    6. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      Re: The socks have it

      +1 on the Pyke as the unit of measurement for boffinry.

    7. Eclectic Man Silver badge

      Re: The socks have it

      "A true boffin would also be totally mystified by the inability of us ordinary folk to follow their descriptions and train of thought."

      pete 2, Alas the same applies to politicians and management 'consultants'

      <Sorry, I have mentioned the unmentionable, I'll ge me coat.>

      1. Munchausen's proxy

        Re: The socks have it

        "A true boffin would also be totally mystified by the inability of us ordinary folk to follow their descriptions and train of thought."

        "pete 2, Alas the same applies to politicians and management 'consultants'"

        I have to disagree with this -- those people not only are not mystified, they know full well their own existence depends on ordinary folk not understanding what they say. Your true boffin actually really does think he is being clear and simplifying by describing the motion of a floor buffer in terms of rotating force tensors, e.g.

        And that leads me to a couple rules I'd like to see in the Pyke scale --

        1. There must be some characteristic of tuning out the real world either transiently or permanently, but not enough to be actually scary. i.e. Norbert Weiner, asking what direction he had been walking when he stopped to talk to you and being told the answer saying, "Thanks, then I guess I've already eaten." was a boffin.

        2. Things boffins do are for the glory of boffinry, not to become rich by selling to rubes. Woz could be a boffin, Jobs never. Goddard maybe, Musk no, not really. Edison no, Tesla yes and no.

        I think there needs to be a big dash of enthusiasm, also. Simple putterers aren't really boffins, no matter how smart or clever.

  6. Chemist

    Well one of my old supervisors..

    with a brilliant analytic mind, once went to a west-coast symposium with some other colleagues and during one evening they went to a night-club or stage show or similar and to their suprise (?) it turned into rather a raunchy strip-tease show - my old boss calmly carried on discussing the chemistry of the day drawing reactions onto his napkin. Nobody else, apparently, took any notice of him.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Re: Well one of my old supervisors..

      Like Feynman? Hell, I've sat in a strip club in Atlanta and done real work before.

  7. jake Silver badge

    A boffin is ...

    ... a researcher who is named a boffin by his/her peers.

    1. frank ly

      Re: A boffin is ...

      I'd say no to that Jake. The main and original characteristic of a boffin is the effect they have on 'ordinary' people, as in the perception of them by service personnel during the technical developments in WW2. Boffinry is perceived by ordinary people and therefore should be defined by ordinary people. (It often involves the eyes glazing over and some mental dislocation when a boffin explains their work.) It's not a group you're invited into by fellow members, it's a club you're put into by outsiders.

      1. Sir Runcible Spoon

        Re: A boffin is ...

        oops, wrong thread.

        Definitely like that last description though - makes peoples eyes glaze and being marked as a Boffin by normals.

        1. DropBear

          Re: A boffin is ...

          One problem with that - by that measure, any fairly competent IT-person is a boffin (don't tell me you never got the glassy stare trying to explain to somebody what and why you were trying to do right in front of them...), and in my book that's definitely not so.

      2. Stoneshop

        Re: A boffin is ...

        some mental dislocation when a boffin explains their work

        There must be a way to measure this dislocation, and expressed as distance (in linguini) times (IQ/100)^n [1] it could be worked into the boffinry formula. But because it's friday I'll take the formula home, expose it to some C2H5OH over the coming 48 hours, and see what develops.

        [1] Exponent to be determined. It'd be easy dislocating a Gumby's mental facilities over several decalinguini and up to two doubledecker buses, using run-of-the-mill everyday science. But truly baffling a fellow boffin should weigh more heavily, even if the mental dislocation is way less in absolute distance.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A positivist pragamatic view on the epistemology of boffins.

    If it looks like a boffin and quacks like a boffin then it's a boffin

    1. Long John Brass

      Re: A positivist pragamatic view on the epistemology of boffins.

      No ... quacks are the anti-boffin

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: A positivist pragamatic view on the epistemology of boffins.

        No ... quacks are the anti-boffin"

        Good point. A true boffin also is plenty strange with a quarky type of charm but they NEVER spin even though they are usually highly charged.

  9. Charlie Clark Silver badge

    Element of chance

    I think the hallmark of good boffinry is genuine interest in all things scientific and mechanical and the attendant tendency to being easily distracted, genius and a pinch of naivety: surely, nobody would ever want to harm anyone else with my latest invention… Leonard of Quirm.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    definition: applied scientist?

    A boffin is a special kind of scientist who is able to apply their command of a body of theoretical knowledge to solving a practical problem.

    Pipe -> theory

    lab coat -> application

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: definition: applied scientist?

      "Pipe -> theory

      lab coat -> application"

      +1 for this elegant representation of the Barnes-Wallace transform

      1. Lyndon Hills 1

        Re: definition: applied scientist?

        Shouldn't it be

        "pipe -> dream

        lab coat -> anorak" ?

    2. plrndl

      Re: definition: applied scientist?


      The idea that boffinry goes with certain job titles is well wide of the mark, and it is noticable that this has been ignored by most commentards.

      I also reject the suggestion that incomprehensibility is a requirement for boffinry, although it is often an accompaniment. Richard Feynman was a boffin of the highest order, and noted for his ability to explain the most abstruse concepts to mere mortals. He even induced arts students to voluntarily attend theoretical physics lectures, an awesone achievment.

      Surely the essential characteristic of a boffin is the ability to put vast amounts of learning to a practical use that benefits the rest of us.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: definition: applied scientist? @plrndl

        >Surely the essential characteristic of a boffin is the ability to put vast amounts of learning to a practical use that benefits the rest of us.

        I'd disagree, a boffin can also come up with something we may think for a fleeting second is a wicked idea yet is totally impractical and of no benefit to almost anyone, something like a Sinclair C5 for example. Maybe many a boffin has cut their teeth in the R&D departments of K-Tel and Ronco before going on to do real boffinry.

    3. Bob Wheeler

      Re: definition: applied scientist?

      Do they not also need a garden shed to work in?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @Bob & garden shed

        No... IMO boffins are actually quite gregarious when there is something worth talking about.

        Garden shed->tinkerer which is like a boffin without the intellectual power.

        1. Sir Runcible Spoon

          Re: @Bob & garden shed

          " He even induced arts students to voluntarily attend theoretical physics lectures, an awesone achievment."

          I used to train ISP sales staff on what the internet was and what they should (and shouldn't) be selling as a product.

          I managed to convert two of them into support engineers such was their interest in the detail - does that count? :)

          1. DropBear

            Re: @Bob & garden shed

            I'd add as a hallmark of boffinry the ability to not merely know but thoroughly, deeply understand their chosen field, in the "grok it" sense - including awareness of the potential implications and consequences - where other people tend to 'know' the same field more in the sense of 'hopefully being aware of and able to recite the relevant knowledge'.

  11. hammarbtyp

    I really, really, hate that word

    I really hate the term boffin. It is too often used by certain publications to describe a man (and it is always a man, women in science tend to go by the term top science tottie) who though clever in a narrow field is incapable of dressing themselves in the morning or finding their glasses despite being perched on the top of their heads.

    It allow those who are less than science literate (including the ruling class who in the majority only science training is in the use of Latin) to look down and denigrate the British scientific community.

    Headlines like "Boffins suggest global warming" allow those who do want to to face realities to pretend that the research has been carried out by some elderly gentleman in tweed jacket with a limited grasp of reality rather than in truth someone who has dedicated their life to meticulous research and investigation.

    Until terms like "Boffin" are relegated from the British language it is unlikely that the huge contribution to the economy that scientists make will ever be get the compensation they deserve and people like Alan Sugar will be able to get away with denigrating the abilities of scientists over his preferred bean counters(I am sure accountants love that term too)

    And don't even get me started on calling gas fitters "engineers"

    1. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      Re: I really, really, hate that word

      Do you want to go back to be and try getting up out of the other side?

    2. albaleo

      Re: I really, really, hate that word

      I'm not sure I agree.

      A boffin is always potentially dangerous. They are not motivated by altruism of any kind such as doing social good or saving the planet. Seeking knowledge and finding out if something is possible are all that count. So on climate science, and the question of whether increased CO2 will warm the atmosphere, a run of the mill climate scientist will warn us to reduce CO2 emissions. Our climate boffin on the other hand is more likely to start pumping CO2 into the atmosphere to see if it is true or not.

      A useful boffin will always have a kind and sensible spouse who makes sure things don't get out of hand.

      1. DropBear

        Re: I really, really, hate that word

        I'm not sure I agree. A boffin is always potentially dangerous.

        Please don't confuse 'boffin' with 'mad scientist'. There are important distinctions, you know. Bwahahahaha....

    3. Colin Brett
      Thumb Down

      Re: I really, really, hate that word

      "I really hate the term boffin. It is too often used by certain publications to describe a man (and it is always a man, women in science tend to go by the term top science tottie) who though clever in a narrow field is incapable of dressing themselves in the morning or finding their glasses despite being perched on the top of their heads.."

      That's the whole point of this discussion: to reclaim the word boffin as a term of respect and admiration for those in the scientific community who know their field inside-out and upside-down and can then apply that knowledge to bring about significant benefits.


    4. YetAnotherLocksmith Silver badge

      Re: I really, really, hate that word

      I work with 'meter fixers' & 'engineers' all the time on gas and electric. You can tell the difference quite easily. The fitter will swap a meter pretty quickly, but refuse to do anything that isn't entirely simple. An engineer will, perhaps, sometimes, warn you it will take a while, but it will get done, & done right.

  12. Domeyhead

    There's more to being a boffin that a white coat, oh dear me yes. The musty tweed suit jacket with elbow patches; tanktop, brogues.......spectacles are a necessity, as is the tendency to lose them. And there is something about owning an ancient black car...........

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      That is an old school boffin.

      A mid-eighties boffin would be dressed as if they'd bought all their clothes on one expedition to C & A in the seventies, credit to Bill Bryson for that.

      A modern day boffin would be just as un-kempt.

      In short a boffin couldn't give two hoots about personal appearance and matching garments, has no dress sense and hair (if they have any) is an inconvenience(*).

      The car is hard to quantify more than being old. I can see boffins lovingly caring for a car they've had forever and equally see others driving a rust bucket they've had forever.

      (*) If this was the only thing to define a boffin then according to my wife I'd be Boffin High Commander.

      1. Domeyhead

        Re: @Domeyhead

        You have something there Chris. The mid eighties boffin - exemplified by the BBC2 Open University programme lectures. The hair now long and lank, but still side parted of course. Combovers accompanied by huge sideburns or a beard whose colour is strikingly different to the hair..the acrylic tanktop now with a wild and crazy pattern like an oscilloscope or a migraine attack. The flannels replaced with corduroy trousers, and the first appearance of the sock/sandal combo. The benign other worldliness of the elder boffin now replaced with the uncertain delivery and awkward unblinking rabbit in headlights fixated stare to camera while reciting a formula in a flat monotone.

        Nerd. Son of Boffin.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: @Domeyhead

          >You have something there Chris

          As I said, credit to Bill Bryson, and it was OU lecturers he was describing.

        2. Gavin King

          Re: @Domeyhead

          "...oscilloscope or a migraine attack."

          I read this as "oscilloscope attack" and now have an urge to design a t-shirt with "Attack of the Oscilloscopes" on it; a rank of angry 'scopes, traces fluctuating wildly as they march through flames...

      2. plrndl

        Re: @Domeyhead

        "The car is hard to quantify..."

        Rover, any vintage.

        1. Bob Wheeler

          Re: @Domeyhead

          An estate car (station wagon) - taking the equipment to/from the garden shed, most likly a Volvo.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: @Domeyhead

        A boffinette friend hasn't sold any of her cars since the 3L Ford Cortina (with a hot cam) that she had when we worked together in the late '80s. They're all "character" cars from the Alfa 33 to the Aussie Ford (her excuse is "I have weak ankles").

    2. phuzz Silver badge

      I'm not sure if it counts as boffinery, but my astro-physics lecturer at uni had an eye-watering line in strange woolly jumpers.

      1. Charlie Clark Silver badge

        I think Mick Aston, RIP, would qualify as a boffin.

  13. Irregularnerd

    Research a necessary prerequisite

    Research in any field(without limiting it to technical as somebody suggested) might qualify somebody as Boffin, in my books.

    One could go so far as to expect a certain degree of asperger's syndrome to come in handy to a real Boffin, as their vivid interest in their respective field might make them somewhat uninterested in other aspects of human life.

    I do think that external factors should be excluded for both Tesla and Einstein were, for their time, quite adequately dressed. There is a tendency to expect Boffins to be dressed according to the fashion of 20 or 30 years earlier, but this is irrelevant, I am willing to state.

    1. This post has been deleted by its author

    2. Sir Runcible Spoon

      Re: Research a necessary prerequisite

      "quite adequately dressed"

      iirc Einstein had many sets of identical clothing so that he didn't have to spend any thought on what to wear. So whilst he may have expended a modicum of thought on the 'set' of clothes chosen, he did so so that he could safely ignore the subject forever more. I suppose Einstein was just a progressive Boffin in that sense, but he still wasn't interested.

  14. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    An abstraction of the surreal

    An archetypical Boffin must surely be the chap[ess] who has the ability at a moment's notice completely to disassociate him[her]self from the real world and concentrate on the problem at hand. Ideally such contemplation will produce some tangible result, but it's not necessary.

    It doesn't matter whether the real world is the pub, the stripshow (as above), the place of work, or indeed the top deck of the Clapham omnibus. Neither does it matter whether he's thinking about why his[her] pipe has gone out or left-right symmetry in some sub-atomic domain - it's not the problem itself, but the focus.

    Example: you're looking at a butterfly and thinking 'pretty', or maybe 'I saw something once about chaos theory'. He[She] is working out how to attach the servos to the wings...

  15. msknight

    Wasn't Boffin a game for the BBC Micro back in the day? That character wore the lab coat, had rimmed glasses but didn't smoke a pipe; however he was quite handy with a brolly.

    Personally, I think it should be a matter of novel achievement in a field rather than a particular field of endeavour.

  16. AdamT

    Based on appearance?

    If it's based on appearance, then the Pierce Brosnan character from Mars Attacks! must be a pretty good archetype:

  17. Schultz

    All wrong ...

    a boffin is the guy who will go a day (and night) without food because he encountered an interesting problem.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: All wrong ...

      And get irritated if you interrupt him, in order to give him a sandwich.

      1. Sir Runcible Spoon

        Re: All wrong ...

        Perhaps you have to have ADHD to be a Boffin? (Or does it just help?)

      2. launcap Silver badge

        Re: All wrong ...

        >>a boffin is the guy who will go a day (and night) without food because

        >>he encountered an interesting problem.

        >And get irritated if you interrupt him, in order to give him a sandwich.

        If those were the criteria then I would be a boffin. Being degreeless and working in IT I really, really don't qualify!

        Mind you, give me a nice knotty problem (preferrably involving the interaction of several poorly-understood systems behaving in a chaotic manner) and the outside world goes away. It's only the pesky requirement of my bodys desire to.. err.. eliminate that tends to drag me away. Just as well I have sufficient adipose tissue to keep me powered for a while!

  18. shawk

    An example is an inventor.

    1. nagyeger

      entrepreneur != Boffin

      To me, an inventor can be a boffin, but an inventor who's an entrepreneur cannot be.

      For example, Dyson is certainly an inventor, but I'd say he's probably got far too much business acumen to be a boffin. A boffin shouldn't be willing to waste time on things like business plans and the like. It keeps them away from the lab.

      I guess that this means a boffin is employed rather than employer, except where the boffin (part) owns the company but has a good friend who "gets on with handles the business side of things", while the boffin tinkers in the lab / dismembers the universe.

  19. JimmyPage
    Thumb Up

    Not sure how to define this ...

    a boffin is someone who can (and may actually) undertake an ordinary activity in an *extra*ordinary way, thanks to their grasp of science.

    Two examples by way of illustration, both from Breaking Bad.

    Walter White making his own battery in the desert out of metal and acid (btw that was *bad* science, as the flimsy wires he connected to the RV would have disintegrated with the current needed to start it)

    Gale B. using Liebig condensors and retorts to brew the perfect cup of coffee.

    I would add that the Mythbusters are all boffins IMHO.


    We have the opposite.

    We have some marvelous chaps (in IT development) called chief scientists. They do nothing scientific and produce software that requires constant care and feeding to keep it barely functional. I believe we have actually discovered the anti-boffin capable of wiping out rational thought on contact.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    If you think you are a boffin...

    ... then you're not.

    True boffins don't recognise themselves as such. To them, a boffin is someone who, to us mere mortals, would classify as a super-boffin.

  22. deadlockvictim Silver badge


    My nomination for archetypal boffin would the doc from 'Back to the Future'.

    In reality, though, anyone who willingly reads academic journals that require a degree in one of the sciences or applied sciences to understand is, in my mind, a boffin. The white lab coat helps.

    Ah, the happy, carefree days of 'Trends in Toxicological Sciences'...

  23. IT Drone

    Boffin versus mad scientist

    Other comments have got it right - a certain absent mindedness and lack of recognition of just how smart they are would seem to define a good boffin. The boffin is an amiable chap who only causes the end of the world accidentally. The rest of us apes owe the comforts of modern life to boffins.

  24. EddieD


    Peter Higgs...

    The official portrait we have of him at EdUni, painted by Ken Currie, shows him holding his glasses behing his back - missing one wing. He was too involved in his research to get a new pair...

  25. John 110

    Biological sciences

    I don't really think the biological sciences throw up boffins as such. In my neck of the woods, we tend to be worker drones or medics.

    Because exceptions prove the rule, I have to give kudos to the Doctor in our lab (in the early 70's) who designed and built (with the aid of a local blacksmith) a laminar flow cabinet that could be used as a portable operating theatre. Sadly he died before more than a prototype was demonstrated.

    Also the pioneer in using maggots to clean wounds (that sort of ickiness kind of screams "boffin") who went on holiday, forgetting that he had left an incubator full of maggots. He returned to an incubator full of greenbottles ( (well, it was full until he opened it....) We still see the occasional greenbottle bumbling past 15 years later.

    1. Michael Hawkes

      Re: Biological sciences

      I disagree with your idea that biological sciences don't breed boffins. I work with several who are researching diseases related to eyes and vision. For example, one of them is working out why certain proteins seem to cause retinal neovascularization, and trying to determine if blocking the production of those proteins will stop neovascularization. That kind of work might lead to treatments for certain types of blindness (age-related macular degeneration, in particular).

      These Ph.D.s are conducting basic science in labs: making observations, formulating hypotheses, devising experiments, and reporting results.

      1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

        Re: Biological sciences

        I suspect that biological sciences produce too many who might have been boffins, but end up as "mad scientists" due to feeling the need for a personal Igor to assist in the lab.

  26. Fink-Nottle

    A boffin kno why attoms whizz.

  27. Colin Brett

    Standing on the shoulders of giants?

    Additional point: a boffin should build on the work of his or her predecessors. They can take the work of Newton, Einstein, Galileo, Oppenheimer and think "wouldn't it be neat if we did this?" Of course, when their new ideas come to fruition, they should credit the original sources and perhaps explain what led to their examining this new line of research.

    Anyone who takes someone else's research, builds on it and then claims all the credit is not a boffin. He or she would be a rip-off merchant.


    Grammar Nazi icon because he has the look of a boffin-turned-lecturer :-)

  28. MarkP

    A major requirement!

    I think we have missed one MAJOR requirement for a boffin. They must be over the age of 40. Boffinry requires experience in the field, preferably longer in the field than any student they are likely to encounter!

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    At least

    scientist or very good inventor.

  30. RobertD

    A boffin...

    is someone who doesn't have to look things up on Wikipedia.

  31. Smike

    The Bond Test

    I think a boffin is anyone whose job or area of expertise puts them at risk of being abducted by Bond villains and being made to work on fiendish plots to take over the world. Examples would be:

    - Rocket scientists.

    - Nuclear Physicists

    - Laser experts

    - Microbiologists

    - Geneticists

  32. cortland

    Boffin envy

    Here in the US some three of ten adults I ask can't say what makes a dropped tennis ball bounce. That's the bad news. The good news is that about as many eight-to-ten-year-olds CAN, sometimes with a little help. We are working very hard to make sure they forget before they're old enough to vote.

    FWIW. *I* junked my TV in 1997 and can still tell an ångström from an angleworm. (But see

  33. ravenviz Silver badge


    A boffin is someone who wears a knitted tie!

  34. Eclectic Man Silver badge

    Waht about us 'pure' mathematicians?

    "definition: applied scientist?

    A boffin is a special kind of scientist who is able to apply their command of a body of theoretical knowledge to solving a practical problem.

    Pipe -> theory

    lab coat -> application"

    By that definition G H Hardy would not qualify, nor would Kurt Godel.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Waht about us 'pure' mathematicians?

      Nope... too detached from the real world... unless you use the pure maths to invent a codebreaking machine!

      Pure maths is the foundation of "real" science & an essential tool of any boffin - but in my experience most mathematicians (and even some Comp. Sci. academics) are perfectly happy to exist entirely within the world of ideas without being concerned as to whether any of those ideas is useful.

  35. cortland

    Ideitifying features

    Physicist Richard Feynman wrote that he and some colleges went to conference on gravity and forgot the address. They told the taxi driver to go where other passengers using words like "mu" and "nu" with each other had sent him. No problem.

    We don't have boffins in the US (One of my High School classmates -- 1962 -- would qualify for his work at Argonne National Labs) but sometimes use nerd or geek. I suspect these are rather off target, though; I've been called the latter myself simply because I know a little about electronics . (Is a kid who builds a railgun in his bedroom at 12 a nerd or a geek? The landlord thought I was a threat to his wallboard.)

    A few years ago, before I retired, I was to do a class on practical electromagnetic compatibility at an aerospace firm to newly hired engineers , and had to drop part where I wanted to ask them the field radiated by a wire carrying current (given radiation pattern and resistance). High School arithmetic!

    Boffins? Ask an archaeologist.

    1. Chemist

      Re: Ideitifying features

      "They told the taxi driver to go where other passengers using words like "mu" and "nu" with each other had sent him. No problem."

      This is a true story : Some colleagues and I who where on a multi-disciplinary team researching ways of interfering with a particular pathway in arthritis went to a meeting with some foreign colleagues. On the way from the airport we were discussing in some depth some ideas we'd had on the rather long flight. When we came to pay the taxi open on his dash was a textbook relating rather too closely to our discussions ( which were rather confidential ). It turned out the taxi-driver was a PhD student of Immunology and had probably understood far too much. Luckily (?) we killed off this project shortly after.

  36. SiempreTuna

    Did I miss the mentions of Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking ..?

    My brother went to a lecture by Stephen Hawking. Claims he understood everything up to and including "Can you hear me at the back?".

  37. Bucky 2

    "Boffin" was once defined to me as "really really smart guy" by a professor who liked WWII slang (which is as far as "boffin" ever got in the US).

    I personally like to imagine that the root word is "boff" and thus "boffin" is anybody who likes butt sex.

  38. Asylum Sam

    Management types wearing freshly laundered Stay-White lab-coats over sharp suits need not apply. You are NOT a scientist.

  39. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Ownership and proper use of an HP-65 calculator or similar device

    Simples, innit?

    1. Stoneshop

      Re: Ownership and proper use of an HP-65 calculator or similar device

      s/HP-65/slide rule/

      It was only introduced in 1974; and this condition would thus exclude such eminent boffins as Barnes Wallis and Oppenheimer. Scientists from the 17th century and further back, such as Da Vinci and Archimedes, do not need to meet this requirement to qualify. Other ways of identifying boffinry may be equally hard for this pre slide rule era, but at least Archimedes has been reported running through the streets stark naked. How's that for dress sense?

      There, fixed that for you (where's the duct-tape-and-zipties icon?)

  40. heenow

    An Outsider Who Won

    Less than a hundred years ago, every scientist, professor, textbook, politician, and student believed the universe was made of but one galaxy, the Milky Way. Those things that looked like galaxies in telescopes and photographic images were defined as "galactic nebulae". The universe was also collapsing according to the them. Mind you there was absolutely no disputing this, it was 100% proven, factual, anointed by all the world's scientists, and taught to all students.

    Except one, a Louisville schoolteacher who said there were millions of galaxies and proved their existence; and the evidence of an expanding universe with his red-shift observations.

    His name was Edwin Hubble. There's a contraption named after him.

    He is the epitome of a boffin.

  41. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Boffin != Baffin

    Which is of course a sea bird from Baffin Island.

    Easy to confuse though.

    I'd also suggest that a Boffin has to be a bloke. Don't know why, I think that's just how it is.

  42. seamusH-D

    Are we not missing something? To my mind, there are (at least) two sorts of boffins, regular, and "back room". Current discussion clearly leans to the definition of regular boffins, but my experiences have left me with lifelong memories of the latter, who are either confined to the back rooms because of security concerns, or their social skills. Experiences cover RAF in mid '60's, then ESRO (European Space Research Agency, which mutated into ESA (European Space Agency) until retirement in 2008.

  43. Scaryscary

    Simply "Has worn a white coat at work". The boffin doesn't always do so, but when so attired looks appropriately comfortable. Stains optional but highly recommended. Worn and tattered optional, but gains extra credibility.

  44. pinkmouse

    Haven't had time to read through all the previous comments, but true boffinery should involve a certain amount of "Shed-idity". This could be an institutional shed, like the Bletchley Park huts, or domestic, Barnes Wallis building catapults at home come to mind. It probably also involves a certain amount of sticky tape, and possibly string as well.

  45. Michael Thibault


    read textbooks (any field) linearly, for interest's sake.

  46. madgabz

    The best movie representation of a boffin...

    Dr. Emmett Lathrop "Doc" Brow

    'Back to The Future' - need i say more?

  47. Eclectic Man Silver badge


    A Boffin would be more interested in and excited by why the experiment failed, than unhappy that it had failed.

    His Boffin-ness Magnus Pyke once calculated how fast a white transit-type van had to go to be jumped over a stream. On live TV the van was driven at the required speed over the ramp and nose dived beautifully into the middle of the flowing water. Pyke was really excited by this failure and suddenly realised he had accidentally omitted air resistance from his calculations!

    I submit this is a necessary, altough perhaps not sufficient, condition for the title of 'Boffin'.

  48. Vinyl-Junkie

    Boffins are (at least partly) engineers...

    I think that a boffin has to have at least a bit of engineer in them as well as scientist. Not only do they see how their solution applies to a problem but they are able to knock up a working protoype (obviously in the sheds mentioned above). They also work in the real world; they are looking for solutions to real world problems and applying science (sometimes at right-angles!) to that problem. Of course, sometimes the line of thinking will produce something that doesn't solve the problem at hand but may have applications in a totally different field! Certainly when the word was originally coined it referred to those whose task was "crack the enemy's code", "shorten the war", "get our tanks safely across the beaches" (Hobart was a boffin!) or similarly broad objectives. The objective can be self-set or externally driven.

    I would include people like the NASA team who had to solve the problem of the incompatible CO2 scrubbers on the Apollo 13 mission as boffins.

    A boffin is a divine being, obviously....

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