[Paleopsych] Nature: (Ig Nobel) Laughter in the lab
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Tue Oct 5 14:19:46 UTC 2004
Laughter in the lab
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^1, and the Biology prize rewarded
the discovery of fish who use farts to communicate^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^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^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^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). | Article |
3. Balasubramaniam R. & Turvey M. Biological Cybernetics, 90:3. 176 -
190 (2004). | Article |
4. McManus I. C., Nature, 259. 426
(1976). | PubMed | ISI | ChemPort |
5. Mills C. M., Llewelyn M. B., Kelly D. R. & Holt P. Lancet, 348.
1282 (1996). | Article | PubMed | ISI | ChemPort |
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