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Laughter in the lab

October 1, 2004 By Helen Pilcher This article courtesy of Nature News.

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.

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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 suicide1, and the Biology prize rewarded the discovery of fish who use farts to communicate2.

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 side3. The abstract of the paper may be indecipherable, but the message is delightful.

At face value, the Ig Nobels offer good clean family fun (well, apart from the 2002 award for work on scrotal asymmetry in ancient sculpture4). 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 laugh.

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 Years5?

References

  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).
  3. Balasubramaniam R. & Turvey M. Biological Cybernetics, 90:3. 176 - 190 (2004).
  4. McManus I. C., Nature, 259. 426 (1976).
  5. Mills C. M., Llewelyn M. B., Kelly D. R. & Holt P. Lancet, 348. 1282 (1996).

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