Sad news: John Hoyland, father of “nominative determinism”, is gone

Very sad news. John Hoyland, my good friend and longtime collaborator, has died. John created “Feedback“, the best column in New Scientist, my favorite magazine (favorite other than Annals of Improbable Research, of course).

As a happy subscriber to New Scientist, I knew and loved John’s work, long before I met him. We began corresponding and collaborating from afar, and in either 2000 or 2001 we finally met, when my wife and I took a trip to London. John and I became fast friends. After that, our collaboration — exchanging good stories whenever one of us felt he had something best suited to the other’s magazine — grew frequent and sometimes giddy (when we ran across things that were especially juicy).

John was one of the best storytellers I ever met. Many of the stories involved John, who lived gleeful, impassioned lives in many worlds — radical journalism (that’s how he liked to describe it), music (as an organizer and a journalist), and later in his career, science journalism. He had a public quarrel, and then a friendship with John Lennon. This video shows John telling part of  the Lennon saga, and then dipping into some of his vast knowledge and lovingly nurtured opinions (John had more than 39 million — I counted them! — lovingly nurtured opinions on various subjects) about music:

The “Feedback” column was and is a collection of odd factual bits about science and the people related to science. Much of it involves cracks in logic, either of people or of the universe. The blurbs in “Feedback” make readers laugh, and then think. As, I hope, do all the bits and pieces in the Annals of Improbable Research and the Ig Nobel Prizes — it’s no accident that John and I liked each other’s work and directed so much good material to each other. John was “Feedback”‘s ringleader, gathering and lightly editing the hard-to-classify bits that New Scientist‘s ace writers and readers were and are always stumbling across and sending his way.

John’s most famous creation, probably, is the phrase “Nominative Determinism“. John devised the phrase and wrote about it, in 1994:

“WE recently came across a new book, Pole Positions – The Polar Regions and the Future of the Planet, by Daniel Snowman. Then, a couple of weeks later, we received a copy ofLondon Under London – A Subterranean Guide, one of the authors of which is Richard Trench. So it was interesting to see Jen Hunt of the University of Manchester stating in the October issue of The Psychologist: “Authors gravitate to the area of research which fits their surname.” Hunt’s example is an article on incontinence in the British Journal of Urology (vol 49, pp 173-176, 1977) by J. W. Splatt and D. Weedon. (This really does exist. We’ve checked it).”

The article does indeed exist.

Here’s a recording of John explaining the concept, on the radio program “The World”, apparently in 2011.

Fed by an unstoppable flow of info sent in by New Scientist‘s readers and reporters, “Feedback” became the prime gathering place for news about people whose names matched up disturbingly well with their lot in life. From time to time John decided to ease up, partly for fear that Nominative Determinism items would overwhelm the page-a-week confines of “Feedback”. I was often the happy beneficiary of these periods — John would send me the best of what he could not or would not use, and I would steer it into the mix in Improbable Research.

In 2003 I began coming to the UK every March to do a series of shows with Ig Nobel Prize winners and others, as part of the UK’s National Science Week, and got to spend many happy hours and days having adventures and swapping stories with John. In 2005, I badgered John into becoming part of our show, to tell audiences about some of his favorite items from “Feedback”.

I had to badger him into it because John had severe stage fright. He said he had never really told stories in front of an audience. I was shocked, because John Hoyland truly was one of the most gifted storytellers I had ever encountered, and he was not shy about telling them to friends and anyone he might encounter. At the Ig Nobel shows, when I finally got him there, John would fidget, fret and shake before the moment came for him to step onto the stage. And then, as he started to talk, and also show pictures of some of the odd, funny things he was talking about, the audiences decided they loved what they were hearing, and loved most that they were hearing it from John.

In this video, you can see John’s talk at our Imperial College London show, on the 2008 Ig Nobel tour of the UK. John comes in a little after the 30-minute point. You’ll notice that John relaxes and begins to fly as the talk progresses:

Seeing that, you may find yourself itching to look up the word “hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia“.

John remained a big part of our UK shows until two years ago, when treatments for prostate cancer drained so much energy that John felt he couldn’t fully be John in such a public setting.

Here are some photos of John on tour with us, telling about a curious road sign (sorry about the redeye effect in this photo!):


… in the audience at one of the shows, after (see how relaxed he is?) he had performed his bit on stage:


… and swapping stories and beers (the beer you see in the photo was John’s nth, I think) with us and other fellow passengers (the gent on the left here, for one) on the train back to London from the Cheltenham Science Festival in 2008:


What I’ve written here describes only a few of the many great aspects of John Hoyland. I never met his like, and don’t expect I or anyone ever will. John made friends easily and quickly, pretty much everywhere he went. If you never got to meet John, you missed someone irreplaceably wonderful.

UPDATE (February 11, 2015): Each of the UK shows on the 2015 Ig Nobel Tour of Europe will include a tribute to John Hoyland and nominative determinism. There will be events in London, Portsmouth, Nottingham, and London. For details, see the events schedule.


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