In praise of irreverent research

October 13, 2010 § 1 Comment

My last post reminded me that I have yet to say or write anything about a recent set of scientific prizes – yeah, yeah, the Nobels, we know all about them. But what about the Ig Nobels? For those who don’t have a clue what I’m on about – these are the prizes awarded by The Annals of Improbable Research. The prizes, and improbable research itself, are dedicated to work that first of all makes you laugh, and then makes you think. And they really do.

I’ve been a huge fan of these awards since I became aware of them in 2007, when I went to watch the Ig Nobels ‘on tour’ in London. Sitting in a room full of scientists at an evening to celebrate award-winning research you might expect a series of long and boring lectures about seemingly tedious research into a tiny incremental change in something-or-another, or a newly discovered whatdyumacallit. Nope. I got woodpeckers and head injuries, a teenager repellant and evidence that female mosquitos like the smell of Limburger cheese.

That intriguing bunch weren’t the only winners; other highlights of the 2006 Ig Nobels were studies into why we hate the sound of fingers down a blackboard, how to get the perfect blink-free photo and an ingenious method of curing a the hiccups.

So what craziness has been going on this year then?

The one that caught my eye first of all was reported on the BBC – an intrepid whale watcher has developed a new method for collecting samples of what is delightfully described as ‘whale snot’. Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse’s team used helicopters kitted out with specimen plates to fly over whales at the exact time they were evacuating their blowholes.

From the other prize winners we learnt that beards do collect microbes (what would Darwin have thought?!), asthma can be cured by rollercoasters and swearing really does relieve pain (I’m seriously considering carrying a copy of this with me at all times to excuse my behaviour when I stub my toe). As an aside, the research paper regarding beards has some exceptionally useful methodology pictures for beard washing.

Lastly, a particular favourite from this year’s bunch is the Economics award to “the executives and directors of Goldman Sachs, AIG, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, and Magnetar for creating and promoting new ways to invest money — ways that maximize financial gain and minimize financial risk for the world economy, or for a portion thereof.”

So, all joking aside – why are these awards important, or even relevant? Well for a start, all of them, except a couple of special awards, involve real research, published in real (often high impact) journals. They show what real scientists research, or have researched, and many of them have some real-life applications or uses.

Importantly, they highlight that science isn’t the dull, archaic subject it’s often perceived to be – yes, a lot of it is really useful and indeed some is hugely profitable, but it’s okay that some is just plain entertaining. As the Improbable Researchers themselves say “How do you decide what’s important and what’s not, and what’s real and what’s not — in science and everywhere else?”.

Finally, you can watch the video of this year’s awards to see for yourself. Enjoy!

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§ One Response to In praise of irreverent research

  • Nice work on the guest blog Beki! Will definitely check it out. Love the Ig Nobel post, some brilliant research in there and it’s a great way to get science out to a wider audience (although no doubt some will complain that it is trivialising it like an Oscar or Grammy Award or something). Looking forward to reading more.

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