Awards that make people laugh and then make them think

 

Through whatever means possible, scientists must keep in regular contact with the public if people are to understand and support their work

THE FIRST reported case of homosexual necrophilia in a mallard duck may or may not make for interesting after- dinner conversation, depending on the peculiarity of your interests, your sense of humour, genuine unbridled curiosity or the company at the table. However, it was a paper on this topic which won the Ig Nobel prize in biology in 2003 for CW Moeliker, curator of birds at the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam.

That same year, Irishwoman Eleanor Maguire won the Ig Nobel prize in medicine for a study that showed that areas of the brain of London taxi drivers were more developed than those of non-taxi drivers, caused by the four years of rigorous study required to learn the detailed geography of the city of London.

The Ig Nobel prizes are awarded to scientists whose work “first makes people laugh – then makes them think”. The prizes are intended to “celebrate the unusual, honour the imaginative – and spur people’s interest in science, medicine and technology”.

The awardees constitute a broad and motley crew as will be seen below, and one of them, Konstantin Novoselov, won the Nobel prize for physics in 2010. He won the 2000 Ig Nobel physics prize for levitating a frog with magnets.

The awards ceremony takes place each year in Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre and is organised by the magazine Annals of Improbable Research and is co-sponsored by the Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students, the Harvard- Radcliffe Science Fiction Association and the Harvard Computer Society. Prizes are presented by Nobel laureates from a variety of disciplines and have been awarded since 1991. Here is a small selection of other winners to entertain and enlighten you.

The 2004 peace prize went to Daisuke Inoue from Japan for his invention of Karaoke, thereby providing an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other. Edward Cussler and Brian Gettelfinger took the 2005 chemistry prize for settling the perplexing question whether people can swim faster in water or in syrup. The answer is that they can swim equally fast in both.

The 2005 economics prize went to Gauri Nanda of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the invention of an alarm clock that runs away and hides thereby forcing people out of bed and into work on time. I saw this item on sale in London last year but resisted the purchase.

The 2008 prize for biology was awarded to Marie Christine Cadiergues and colleagues for their demonstration that fleas that live on dogs jump higher than fleas that live on cats. And 2009 provided another Irish winner when An Garda Síochána won the literature prize for writing and presenting more than 50 traffic tickets to a Polish individual, Prawo Jazdy. He was thought to be the most frequent motoring offender in Ireland until it was discovered that Prawo Jazdy means “driving licence” in Polish.

The 2009 public health prize went to Elena Bodnar and colleagues for the design of a fashionable bra that can be converted within seconds into a pair of Hepa-filter gas masks. The idea was conceived on a visit by Bodnar to Chernobyl as a medical student.

Yet the communication of science to non-scientists can present real and profound difficulties. John Updike alluded to this in a 1985 article in the New Yorker in which he noted:

“The non-scientist’s relation to modern science is basically craven: we look to its discoveries and technology to save us from disease, to give us a faster ride and a softer life, and at the same time we shrink from what it has to tell us of our perilous and insignificant place in the cosmos.

“Not that threats to our safety and significance were absent from the pre-scientific world, or that arguments against a God- bestowed human grandeur were lacking before Darwin. But our century’s revelations of unthinkable largeness and unimaginable smallness, of abysmal stretches of geological time when we were nothing, of supernumerary galaxies and indeterminate subatomic behaviour, of a kind of mad mathematical violence at the heart of matter have scorched us deeper than we know.”

We need to vigorously counter the “scorching” impact of such dark interpretations. It is incumbent upon science professionals to communicate with the general public. It is important that the wonders and excitement of science be instilled in young people if we are to continue to benefit from its progress. It is imperative that we have a scientifically literate Government and that research and development continue to attract adequate funding.

- Dr Brian Hughesof NUIG will present an Irish Skeptics Society lecture entitled The Babel Fish Dilemma: talking science with non-scientists at 8pm on April 20th in the Davenport Hotel, Dublin 2. See irishskeptics.org


Paul O’Donoghue is a clinical psychologist and founder member of the Irish Skeptics Society.

contact@irishskeptics.org.