The Ig Nobel Prize – Celebrating the Spirit of Science

Disclaimer:

English was not my first language to learn and although I do proclaim it as my native language these days (for the simple reason that I do speak it better than my first language) I have yet to master the beauty and elegance of prose. So forgive my grammatical and punctuation errors as well as the copious waffling and intermittent lack of coherence.

I simply liberated my thoughts from my brain without having the sensitivity for wordy details.

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After not having put together a proper post concerning my entomology internship yet, I thought I should really make a start, especially since we are nearing the end of an amazing year!

What better way to start than by writing about one of the weirdest awards given out in science – the “Ig Nobel Prize” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ig_Nobel_Prize)!! Surely, most people will have heard of the Nobel Prize that honours exceptional scientific and cultural contributions or the Nobel Peace Prize that recently went to the European Union for promoting “peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights” in the last six decades (controversial as it may be).

The Ig Nobel Prize on the other hand honours less “serious” scientific achievements. If you want to win, you have to “first make people laugh, and then make them think”. The prize ceremony takes place annually at Sanders Theater at Harvard University and is presented by “proper” Nobel laureates. From what I’ve read, it seems like one big joke party; paper planes whizzing through the air, a “Parade of Ignitaries” and delegates of the Museum for Bad Art showing off their finest pieces. It would seem that the gang of unleashed scientists can only be stopped by the sharp cry of “Please stop: I’m bored” from the prominent 8 year old Miss Sweetie Poo” (some might argue this is a bullet proof way of keeping people from waffling on as seen in this very effective demonstration http://www.improbable.com/ig/2012/ ). At the end of the ceremony, losers and especially winners are wished better luck for the next year.

Image

Miss Sweetie Poo’s effective way of preventing copious waffling

(Source: http://ttechbytes.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/photo-highlights-from-this-year-ig.html)

 

I’ve recently stumbled across this unusual ceremony  as I followed a paper trail initiated through a Facebook link by Nature (not so bad after all eh?) which directed me to an article describing some of the longest running experiments to date. The most intriguing of them (at least to my easily awed brain) concerned the dripping rate of … PITCH! (For more detail see: http://www.nature.com/news/long-term-research-slow-science-1.12623 )

 

The Pitch-drop Experiment

Now, why would anyone be interested in the dripping rate of pitch, let alone, who in their right mind would actually put together a physical (rather than theoretical) experiment to witness what happens.

If you fail to grasp the gravity of the situation, let me (try to) explain:

Pitch is a black tar distillate that displays a bit of a dual nature – two faced pitch? – a bit like the wave-particle nature of photons. In this case, Thomas Parnell, the first professor of Physics at the University of Queensland, Australia, tried to convince his students that pitch behaves like both, a solid and a liquid. When cold, the impact of a hammer could smash a solid piece of pitch to smithereens. But at normal room temperature the black stuff behaves like a very, very viscous liquid. In order to demonstrate this, Parnell set up a long term experiment that was to continue for decades to come. In 1927, he transferred some pitch into a glass funnel, placed a beaker underneath to catch the falling drops and waited… and waited… and waited. The first drop fell in 1938, around 8-9 years after the funnel was cut open (although Parnell set up the experiment in 1927, he waited for 3 years to let the pitch settle in the funnel)! Unfortunately no one witnessed the crucial moment when the drop disconnects and falls.

Not to worry because in 1961 John Mainstone came along to discover this neat little experiment gathering dust in a cupboard and decided to adopt it. He has been watching over it ever since and has already found the next “keeper of the time”. However, the falling of the drop has yet to be witnessed! According to Nature, Mainstone estimates the next drop to fall “towards the end of the year” – I can already feel the suspense in the air!

So what does our little experiment have to do with the Ig Nobel Prize? Well, in 2005 Parnell and Mainstone were finally and rightly acknowledged for their efforts, and Mainstone did well to be cut short by Miss Sweetie Poo during his speech.

 

Criticism and the need for the liberation of Science

There are some voices that claim that the Ig Nobel ridicules science and encourages trivial experiments (see Robert May, Chief Scientific Advisor in 1995).

I argue the opposite. We need more serious discussion and thinking about seemingly trivial science, theories, observations, hypotheses, call it whatever you like. I don’t necessarily mean at a large scale i.e. needing loads of money to carry out an experiment. On the contrary, a lot of “trivial” experiments are born from curiosity rather than necessity hence the people driven by a strong sense of curiosity will usually find cost-effective ways of carrying out their experiments. Of course that is not always the case and I am sure there are just as many controversial studies currently running that are guzzling away scarce research funding.

Anyway, I do feel that a lot of people shy away from talking let alone thinking about the “Improbable” and downright childish conjectures of the brain. Personally I find it liberating to argue about futile, made-up scenarios and ideas. It encourages creativity and imagination by constructing a castle in the sky and fosters critical thinking that tears the same castle apart. Although it might be a completely bonkers idea, it does train one’s mind to take apart the argument/hypothesis or whatever it is and analyse it. Furthermore, I strongly believe that by walking through the world with an open mind and open senses, and trying to question everything helps observation and maybe according to the laws of probability, at some point you hit a winner (ie a “BIG” idea that will shake the world as we know it!).

People these days are swamped by all sorts of information causing an overflow of the brain, so we naturally try and concentrate on the most important (or take the opposite turn and procrastinate on facebook). I do it myself. Which news articles should I read to keep me up to date with my career path, which courses should I do to further my skills and make me more employable, more… competitive! I am currently enrolled in 4 Coursera courses, trying to learn R and multivariate statistics, French on the side whilst applying for scholarships for a masters in September and and and… The “To DO” list never seems to be ending. My only consolation; the appalling Scottish spring, at least I don’t feel guilty for not going outdoors very much.

In all that craze of the rat race we forget to play and bumble around in silliness, to enjoy ourselves by doing stuff that might not be that important from a financial or whatever viewpoint but that enriches our spirit.

It’s a general problem especially in the “developed” world.  Going back to science (I realise I’m waffling now… miss sweetie poo would have gotten me long ago!), we need more bravery for the stuff that is not perceived as crucial. It’s easy perhaps to jump on a bandwagon, follow the trends of the sexiest scientific issue. Don’t get me wrong, there are very good reasons why more money should be invested in climate change research, conservation, cancer, AIDS and other diseases and CERN (although the latter is a bit of a bonkers itself – little particles going around in a giant underground circular tube??!!) but there we are again, MONEY!

I argue the case for more scientific research driven by passion and curiosity, not to the abolishment of necessity driven science but as sort of reinforcement.

To lead a healthy and fulfilled life People should follow their passions and curiosity rather than following the money. And if one has an aptitude for what one loves to do, then perhaps one can also make “a living”. [you can read more along these lines in one of Ken Robinson’s books and TED talks about education, creativity and finding one’s passion]

I believe that the Ig Nobel celebrates just that; a passion to follow one’s curiosity however stupid, obvious or unimportant it may appear. I believe that this award truly celebrates the SPIRIT OF SCIENCE, because in a way science is all about making observations, asking questions and going on a quest to find answers and discover more questions and so forth. In that sense, no idea and question are too trivial. Unless an answer is come by easily, nothing is trivial (and even if an answer is found easily, one can always dig deeper!).

The spirit with which science has been carried out is what makes us really stand out as Homo sapiens; the urge to find out WHY? and HOW? surely define our evolution and so far success (although this “success” could be debated, but I’m getting off topic again).

So to bring this to an end and make it at least a little bit relevant to my blog about entomology, I would like to add that I’m sort of following a “maverick and queer” path myself. At the moment not many people on this planet seem to care a great deal about insects (ok, bees and the more “fluffy” members of the Arthropoda are currently getting a bit more attention due to the neonicotinoid debate) so I don’t expect to ever get paid tons of money if I do follow a career in entomology. It’s really not about that. I didn’t choose to spend my second year after graduation scrambling for part-time employment whilst doing a part-time internship. If it was for money I could have become a full-time shelf-stacker or barista (yepp, the ambitions are high in our competitive post grad world).

I decided to go for the insects because I unconditionally love the look of them and I simply wanted to drown my thirst for knowledge (imagine this with a mighty “MUHAHAH”). Luckily I did receive a grant to cover at least my rent and heating costs from a UK charity (The People’s Trust for Endangered Species; great people! check out their stipends!), people who care a great deal about what going on in and around nature and who I wanted to enthuse with the cool insect stuff I get to look at every week (had I not been such a lousy blog writer, and twitter-er).

The point is (almost finished!), science is not about the money, or the prestige or how many people will cite your papers. Truly noble, hardcore Science is about passion, perseverance, patience, observance, camaraderie,  sly bit of humour and much much more – all of which I think is fundamentally manifested in the Ig Nobel Prize!

To repeat myself, perhaps we should all try to follow these principles a bit more, even in our everyday life (you can always turn something scientific!). Who knows, maybe one day some of us will also fly paper planes and get told to shut up by Miss Sweetie Poo, but until then I will harp on about insects like Gospel!

 

For a few more amusing stories check out the following:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/sep/22/ig-nobels-celebrate-small-beautiful-science

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/sep/21/ig-nobel-awards-dead-salmon

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2011/sep/29/immortality-ig-nobel-prize-winners

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