Science awards for dead fish and ponytails

Every year, the scientific community comes together to celebrate its most bizarre and offbeat discoveries. The Ig Nobel Prizes are entertaining – but do they trivialise science?

Can a dead fish read human emotions? Of course not. Yet when a team of neuroscientists placed pictures in front of a salmon corpse and measured its brain patterns, they found clear evidence of activity. Not only, it seemed, could its lifeless eyes still see: it was almost as though the fish was actually processing the meaning of the images.

This was a genuine experiment published in a serious journal. But its true purpose was nothing to do with zombie salmon. By ‘confirming’ an obviously absurd hypothesis, the experiment proved that brain scans conducted without proper rigour can be used to ‘prove’ almost anything.

Today, the researchers who posed that ridiculous question are the proud winners of the second most famous award in the science: the Ig Nobel prize. The ‘Igs’, a mischievous spoof on the Nobel Prize, are awarded for achievements that ‘first make people laugh, and then make them think.’

Occasionally Igs pointedly flag up intellectual effort that is genuinely useless or absurd. This year’s Literature Prize, for instance, went to the US government accountability office for issuing: ‘a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports.’

Most recipients, though, are flattered when their research is acknowledged. The subjects might initially sound strange or trivial – ‘Leaning to the left makes the Eiffel Tower look smaller’ proved exactly what its title suggests, while ‘Ponytail Motion’ demonstrates a formula to predict the movement of joggers’ hair – but the maths and science behind these studies is real. And its applications can be deadly serious.

Take the scientists who discovered that mosquitoes are attracted to smelly feet, for instance. Since winning an Ig in 2006, they have been awarded almost $1 million to channel their findings into a malaria prevention scheme.

Many of science’s most spectacular breakthroughs have had similarly humble beginnings. For celebrated physicist Richard Feynman, the road to Nobel Prize glory began when he saw a waiter spill a plate in a restaurant. Then there is the famous myth of Isaac Newton and his apple...

An ignoble prize?

Still, not everybody is convinced that the Ig Nobels are worthwhile. One British scientist called on the committee to stop awarding them to his countrymen, complaining that they encouraged silliness and damaged the reputation of serious scientists.

But scientific exploration, as Ig Nobel organisers point out, often begins with an eccentric idea. And the studies that the Igs celebrate can awaken the imagination of a public often alienated by science. As dead salmon neuroscientist Craig Bennett said, they are ‘using the tools of humour and absurdity to change science.’

You Decide

  1. If you were a scientist and you were awarded an Ig Nobel Prize, would you be flattered or offended?
  2. Can something funny also be serious?

Activities

  1. Think of a problem you have encountered in everyday life that could be solved by science, and propose an experiment to investigate it.
  2. One group of experimenters explained the swing of a pony tail using a famous phenomenon known as the ‘pendulum effect’. Research this and think of some ways it might be applied to useful effect.

Some People Say...

“Science is not a laughing matter.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Can any of this research actually affect my life?
Perhaps you will notice sometime soon that hair movement in animated films and video games has become more realistic. If so, it is probably down to two-time prize winner Joseph Keller and his colleagues, who accurately mapped the swing of a pony tail.
Right. Anything else?
Thanks to this year’s Ig Nobel in medicine, you are now less likely to explode during a colonoscopy, a common operation used to detect cancer cells in the gut.
Explode? Seriously?
It’s not common, but it happens. Gases in the intestine can be ignited by electricity used in the process. Thankfully this can now be prevented by ‘thorough cleansing’.

Word Watch

Neuroscientists
Scientists who study the nervous system, including the brain.
Hypothesis
When scientists conduct an experiment, they always start by suggesting a theory that could be disproved. This is their ‘hypothesis’.
Without proper rigour
The scientists claim that around 40% of studies using MRI scans are conducted without a control. This means that chance electrical activity in the brain can be wrongly taken as evidence – exactly what they purposefully did with the salmon.
The Nobel Prize
Set up by Swedish philanthropist Alfred Nobel in 1895, the Nobel Prize has become probably the most prestigious award in science and culture. However, it has been criticised for a number of reasons, including the fact that Sweden wins a surprising proportion of the awards.
What its title suggests
When we are used to reading from left to right, this can apparently affect our perception. Objects in the left field of our vision can seem smaller; those on the right can seem larger.
Richard Feynman
From nanotechnology to atomic weapons to deep theoretical physics, Richard Feynman was a pioneering physicist in a bewildering range of areas. But he was even more famous as a populariser of science, who could make deeply complicated ideas seem comprehensible and exciting. His work on the spinning of electrons, which won him the Nobel Prize, was inspired by witnessing a plate flying through the air after it was dropped by a waiter in a restaurant.
Isaac Newton and his apple
When an apple fell on the head of 18th Century scientist Isaac Newton, the story goes, the idea of gravity came to him in a flash. Most science historians now believe the tale is a simplification, though it probably contains a grain of truth.

Subjects

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