[Paleopsych] Nature: (Ig Nobel) Laughter in the lab

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Laughter in the lab

    [4]Helen Pilcher
    This year's Ig Nobel awards celebrated a glittering cornucopia of
    silly science. As the laughter fades, Helen Pilcher explains why
    science shouldn't take itself so seriously.

    The Ig Nobel awards are arguably the highlight of the scientific
    calendar. The prizes, which are the wayward son of the more righteous
    Nobels, are supposed to reward research that makes people laugh, then
    think. They are a welcome antidote to the everyday seriousness and
    stuffiness of life in the lab, providing a run down of mildly amusing,
    and sometimes frankly ridiculous, science.
    This year's awards, which were doled out on Thursday 30 September,
    were no exception. The Medicine gong recognized the relationship
    between country music and suicide^[5]1, and the Biology prize rewarded
    the discovery of fish who use farts to communicate^[6]2.
    Some people may raise their eyebrows at such seemingly pointless
    science. But I would argue that we need research like this to lighten
    our lives. Science has become something of a black hole for comedy, a
    fun-free singularity where absurdities vanish like grant money. Gags
    are frowned upon, and the closest a scientist can get to humour is
    naming a dinosaur after an ageing rock star (Masiakasaurus knopfleri),
    or a gene after a computer game (sonic hedgehog).
    The Ig Nobels help redress the balance. By recognizing researchers who
    examine complicated ideas in everyday situations, they make science
    entertaining, understandable and accessible.
    Take this year's award for Physics. The paper says, "The
    Karhunen-Loève decomposition was applied to the kinematics of the
    lower limbs in three experiments in which oscillation amplitude and
    frequency were manipulated."
    This translates to: people hula-hooped fast, they hula-hooped slow,
    scientists videoed their legs and then did some sums. Their
    conclusion: if you want to become hula-hoop champion, move your knees
    up and down, and your ankles and hips from side to side^[7]3. The
    abstract of the paper may be indecipherable, but the message is
    At face value, the Ig Nobels offer good clean family fun (well, apart
    from the 2002 award for work on scrotal asymmetry in ancient
    sculpture^[8]4). But they also serve a more worthy purpose.
    The awards help to stimulate a natural curiosity in the world around
    us, and reach audiences that the authors of conventional research
    papers can only dream of: those who think that science is dull,
    complicated and of no relevance to their lives. They are much
    undervalued in the arsenal of science communication tools, which too
    often embrace worthy concepts such as 'public dialogue' and
    'engagement' at the expense of fun.
    Winners of the prizes don't take themselves too seriously either,
    which helps make scientists seem human. Gone is the stereotype of the
    corduroy-wearing recluse, slaving over a hot Bunsen burner. Embrace
    instead the amusing eccentric who pursues worthy science and has a
    Like any discipline, science shouldn't be exempt from satire. Just as
    politicians lay themselves bare to the irreverent lampooning of the
    media, so too should scientists receive a gentle dig in the ribs from
    time to time. And sometimes they deserve it. After all, who can fail
    to be tickled by the 1998 winner and Lancet paper: A Man Who Pricked
    his Finger and Smelled Putrid for 5 Years^[9]5?

     1. Stack S. & Gundlach J. Social Forces, 71:1. 211 - 218 (1992).
     2. Wilson B., Batty R. S. & Dill L. Biology Letters, 271. S95 - S97
        (2003). | [11]Article |
     3. Balasubramaniam R. & Turvey M. Biological Cybernetics, 90:3. 176 -
        190 (2004). | [12]Article |
     4. McManus I. C., Nature, 259. 426
        (1976). | [13]PubMed | [14]ISI | [15]ChemPort |
     5. Mills C. M., Llewelyn M. B., Kelly D. R. & Holt P. Lancet, 348.
        1282 (1996). | [16]Article | [17]PubMed | [18]ISI | [19]ChemPort |


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    7. http://www.nature.com/news/2004/040927/pf/040927-20_pf.html#B3
    8. http://www.nature.com/news/2004/040927/pf/040927-20_pf.html#B4
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