Nonfiction

Ig Nobel Science

31 May 2013

Science has a fantastic reputation for being dull and stuffy. If it isn’t about dinosaurs then quite frankly, the average person doesn’t want to hear about it. Even the auspicious occasion of the Nobel Prizes, the highest award possible for humanitarian or scientific achievements, gets little attention from the general public as it is–certainly when compared with the Oscars.

Enter the Ig Nobel, a punny take on the Nobel Prize, which focuses on the more kooky achievements of human endeavour. The awards are administered annually by Improbable Research, an organisation that hopes to inspire curiosity in the disillusioned and to make them question what is truly important in science and broader research. The Ig Nobel prizes are physically awarded by actual Nobel Laureates, for exceptional discoveries that will “first make people laugh, and then think”.

The ceremony begins with the invented tradition of throwing paper aeroplanes at designated figures on the stage, and what follows is really no less of a farce than more traditional award ceremonies. In an ingenious solution to the common acceptance speech problem, any tearful oration over the limit of one minute is ended by a little girl-‘Miss Sweetie Poo’–politely yelling “Please stop: I’m bored!” until the offending scientist steps down. Each ceremony also includes its own premiere of a mini-opera, in what seems to be an honest attempt to bring opera back into popularity as well as science.

Amongst all this frivolity, the presenters do find the time to award ten Ig Nobel Prizes for different areas of research such as physics, medicine, literature, biology, acoustics, fluid dynamics, or whatever else seems to fit the most ‘improbable’ research of the year. Ig Nobel laureates are found worldwide, and Australia can boast quite a few winners since the awards’ inception in 1991: Glenda Brown from Blaxland, NSW researched the many ways in which the word “the” causes problems for alphabetisation in indexes; Darryl Gwynne and David Rentz discovered that a certain beetle will attempt to mate with a certain kind of Australian beer bottle; and Nic Svenson and Piers Barnes from the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organisation (CSIRO) won an Ig Nobel for calculating how many photographs you have to take to be fairly sure that there will be one where nobody blinked. Sometimes the research titles really do speak for themselves. The 2003 Physics Ig Nobel went to the authors of ‘An Analysis of the Forces Required to Drag Sheep over Various Surfaces’. Perhaps most famously, Karl Kruszelnicki (better known as the triple j science radio phenomenon, Dr. Karl) won the 2002 Interdisciplinary Research Ig Nobel for his thorough survey of human belly button lint.

David Darby, an Ig Nobel laureate and a behavioural neurologist at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health simply summed up the idea for his own experiment by saying, “We all know that when our bladder is full we get consumed by that intellectually and we just have to relieve ourselves before we can get on with what we’re doing. And so we thought it would be nice if we could quantify and actually prove that.” Darby’s efforts, along with those of his colleagues, were eventually rewarded with the 2011 Ig Nobel Prize for Medicine. Not only did the experiment show that a person’s reaction time slows with a heightening of the perceived need to urinate, but it was also able to equate this to levels of drunkenness. Darby found that, at the peak of wanting to pass urine, cognitive impairment was equivalent to a blood alcohol concentration of .08, which has quite important implications for driving safely.

Scientists have been known to react with mixed feelings upon receiving an Ig Nobel prize for what they originally considered to be serious research. On being nominated for an Ig Nobel prize, Darby said, “Some of my colleagues thought it was the end of their careers but in the end I just thought it was pretty cool.” In fact, before an Ig Nobel prize is awarded, the researchers are contacted and asked whether or not they believe (with good cause) that receiving it will impact negatively on them professionally. On such occasions, of which there have been a few, the award is given to another worthy contender.

The editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, Marc Abrahams, contended in his article “What is the Ig?” that the Ig Nobel prize is not specifically intended for achievements or failures, but sits somewhere in between. He said, “The Ig, as it is known, honours the great muddle in which most of us exist much of the time. Life is confusing. Good and bad get all mixed up.” The ‘Ig,’ as it is more affectionately referred to, is an award that toasts to the unlikely, and it is up to the public to deem how good, bad or irrelevant the findings are.

The Ig is also an attempt to show the humorous side of empirical knowledge in order to get people’s brains switched on. The question is whether or not they go too far. Perhaps it is sufficient to reference the old adage: any publicity is good publicity. If the Ig shifts scientific discourse into the public sphere, then at least the efforts of the incredible minds of today are able to have influence.After the 2011 ceremony, Darby was approached by a stranger:. “They didn’t want to talk to me, they just wanted to shake my hand,” he says. Darby remarked that that he’d never experienced anything like it before, as scientists rarely get any kind of accolades. But it seems that receiving an Ig can bring a kind of fame with it.

Goodness knows that science needs some promoting in order to be heard amongst the din of celebrity gossip and weather reports. “In science we’re not often good at that. We sit, we think about things, we do our experiments, they’re published in papers that the lay public doesn’t read and rarely does it actually surface to get into the consciousness of people that are beyond your field,” Darby remarks. Finding the hilarity and quirkiness in science is a fantastic way to bring the incredible achievements of researchers into the light, even if it may mean not being taken too seriously at first. Darby noted that, “You can often lose perspective as a scientist that what you’re doing may seem to other people, quite funny.”

The world we live in has a multitude of interesting phenomena that are investigated every day by the fearless explorers of knowledge we call chemists, physicists, biologists, anthropologists, and all manner of other –ists. The Ig Nobel Prize is a genuine, if unorthodox, attempt to get them noticed, and perhaps even commended. Best of luck to the 2013 nominees.

Notable Ig Nobels

1996 Physics Prize: Robert Matthews studied many aspects of Murphy’s Law and found that buttered toast does tend to fall on the buttered side more often than not.

1998 Statistics Prize: Jerald Bain and Kerry Siminoski made a thorough examination of ‘The Relationships Among Height, Penile Length, and Foot Size’.

2008 Medicine Prize: Dan Ariely et al. demonstrated that expensive placebo medicines were more effective than cheap placebo medicines.

2009 Public Health Prize: Elena N. Bodnar, Raphael C. Lee, and Sandra Marijan of Chicago invented a bra that could, if it were a real emergency, be efficiently turned into two protective face masks (in case a bystander needed one as well).

2010 Peace Prize: Richard Stephens, John Atkins, and Andrew Kingston of Keele University provided confirmation that yes, bloody well indeed, swearing does actually relieve pain.

2011 Literature Prize: John Perry of Stanford University developed the Theory of Structured Procrastination, which states that in order to be a high achiever one must work on something important as a way of avoiding working on something that is far more important.

2011 Chemistry Prize: Makoto Imai et al. of Japan determined the perfect density of airborne wasabi that would be needed in order to wake up sleeping individuals in the event of an emergency, and so invented the wasabi alarm.


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