On a starlit night in Arizona in 2014, Joanna Schug handed Kunio Sayanagi a research proposal. Schug, a behavioral scientist at the College of William and Mary, had been carrying the proposal around in her bag for more than a month, but she could never find the right time for the handoff. Sitting on the hood of a car under the dark desert sky, the moment felt right.
This was no ordinary collaboration agreement. The document proposed “a long-term research study to examine the impact of a marital union on future happiness over the course of the rest of our lifetimes.” Preliminary data, depicted in a graph, showed a steady increase in happiness since the scientists became a couple.
He nervously waited for her to reach the acknowledgements, where he’d written, “Lorna, will you marry me?”
Sayanagi, a planetary scientist at Hampton University, enthusiastically agreed, and formally sealed the deal with a “letter of commitment” hidden inside a Valentine’s Day bouquet a few of months later. The pair then coauthored a research paper titled “The effects of an encounter of Joanna and Kunio: A wedding celebration.”
The manuscript, alas, only appeared in the couple’s wedding program, an obscure publication that is not peer reviewed. Plenty of other scientists, however, have managed to sneak romantic gestures into more prestigious publications. Thanking a
significant other in the acknowledgements section of a scientific paper, for instance, is common. Proposing marriage? Not as much.
Caleb Brown, a paleobiologist at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, Canada, is one of at least three scientists, as far as we could find, to have proposed in a scientific paper. He popped the question to his girlfriend, Lorna O’Brien, in a 2015 article outlining the discovery of a new horned dinosaur nicknamed “Hellboy.” A few days before the paper was published, he asked O’Brien, also a paleobiologist at the Royal Tyrrell Museum, to scan the page proofs for mistakes. He nervously waited for her to reach the acknowledgements, where he’d written, “Lorna, will you marry me?” But she skipped right over it. He had to ask her to read it again.
“When you do a taxonomic description of a new species, it tends to have an immortality in the literature,” Brown tells The Scientist. By hitching the question to the discovery, he hoped to buy some immortality for the proposal, too. It helped, of course, that he was relatively sure what the answer would be. “I thought it was a cool, but geeky and fun way to propose,” he says.
On her second read, O’Brien read the proposal, and accepted. “I’m not really a big gestures kind of person,” says O’Brien, but “having it attached to such an iconic specimen is nice.”
Marriage proposals in the literature are sparse, but there is a long tradition of naming newly discovered species after the ones you love. In the Aloe genus, for example, at least 1 percent of species take their names from botanists’ wives, according to a 2010 analysis in Bradleya. (No husbands have yet earned that honor.)