Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Proposal by Paper

By Stephen Luntz

When Brendan McMonigal wrote a mock research paper proposing to his girlfriend neither guessed it would go viral on the internet.

When physicist Brendan McMonigal wanted to propose to science communicator Christie Nelan he decided to do it in the most scientific way he could think of. He created a fictitious paper, writing about their relationship as if it was a scientific subject for study and titling it Two Body Interactions: A Longitudinal Study.

In the conclusion McMonigal wrote: “The summary of the findings of the study are presented in Figure 1, and show that the projected happiness is upward with high confidence. Taking these results into account the author proposes to Christie Nelan, the indefinite continuation of the study.” He gave it to her on bended knee at the place where they first met.

The single flaw in the plan was that Nelan skipped straight from the abstract to the conclusion, and was forced to then read the whole paper while “just wanting to say yes”.

A year later, in the lead-up to the wedding, Nelan put the paper on the internet. It went viral, attracting over two million hits (and probably more through mirror sites). The combination of whimsical romance and science proved irresistible to many.

Both McMonigal and Nelan were early enthusiasts for science. “I was always interested in science, but not in a specific branch,” Nelan says. “In grade 2 I read a book on clouds and I was going to be a meteorologist. The next year it would be something else, like the history of navigation.”

McMonigal, on the other hand, was “always interested in extreme physics – black holes and faster-than-light travel. I also had a lot of interest in the metaphysics side of philosophy, the constraints of what was possible.”

These early approaches have been reflected in the directions each is taking. Both did double undergraduate degrees, with McMonigal combining his physics and maths with philosophy and linguistics, while Nelan studied physics and ancient Greek. At one point she had a quantum physics class followed by lessons in linguistics held in the same lecture theatre, depriving her of even the chance of a walk across campus to change headspaces. Her Honours degree was in astrophotonics.

As diverse as their courses sound, McMonigal says he focused on the logical aspects of philosophy, which uses a lot of maths. Moreover, he says: “Having a maths background makes linguistics so much easier.” Nevertheless he stills says he “got maths withdrawal” when his subjects strayed too far.

Nelan started volunteering with outreach in the physics department, and then worked as a demonstrator when high school science students came to the department for practical classes that could not be done at school for reasons of safety or lack of equipment. She also guided tours of the university, so when a position with the Questacon Science Squad came up she grabbed it.

The Science Squad is an expansion of the long-running Questacon Science Circus, performing shows in schools to enthuse students about science with half-hour demonstrations on topics such as forces, climate change or the things that can be done with liquid nitrogen. While the Circus travels through rural and regional Australia the Squad is based in Sydney.

McMonigal made himself the envy of science fiction fans everywhere when his Honours project explored the practicality of warp drives and their effects on massive particles. He concluded it would not only be fatal to those doing the travelling but to anyone located at the destination.

For his PhD McMonigal has taken on the less popular topic of galactic halos of local galaxies. “We’re getting somewhere, but it is slow progress,” he says. “I’m trying to characterise the exact properties of M33, but it is proving statistically more difficult than expected.”

Nelan is looking for a new job as the Science Squad is shutting down. She says she’d “consider coming back to research, but it is more likely to be research on science communication. I really like interacting with people and talking about science.”

As outlined in the paper McMonigal and Nelan met at a University of Sydney Science Society barbecue at the start of their university careers. They were married 8 years to the day later.

Inevitably the wedding itself had science flourishes, with flowers at the reception placed in test tubes and conical flasks, while friends made a model Tardis in which cards were placed and the cake was coloured to match the spectrum.

Although Nelan was quoted as saying “I guess we won the internet” after the popularity of the paper, and their wedding was covered by Women’s Day, their lives have not greatly changed. “No one has asked me for an autograph,” Nelan says, “but I did have a child recognise me in one of my shows, which I thought was pretty amazing.”

But the true test of scientific success is being cited in other papers, a feat the couple has already achieved after a mock paper on the best way to find a partner referenced McMonigal’s work.