Noble am­bi­tions

Smith Journal - - Random Element - Writer Taz Liff­man Il­lus­tra­tor Ti­mothy Rodgers •



CON­SIDER THE FOL­LOW­ING SCI­EN­TIF­I­CALLY VER­I­FI­ABLE FACTS: ..........................................

Once a cow has stood up it’s dif­fi­cult to pre­dict when it will next lie down. Ex­pen­sive fake medicine works bet­ter than cheap fake medicine. Peo­ple will find a way to de­lay their own deaths if it will qual­ify them for a lower rate on in­her­i­tance tax.

If these find­ings made you chor­tle and then won­der, Marc Abra­hams is happy. Ev­ery year, his An­nals of Improbable Re­search re­ceives thou­sands of nom­i­na­tions from folk who reckon they’ve stum­bled on a piece of “improbable re­search” de­serv­ing of spe­cial ac­claim. As the magazine’s edi­tor and em­cee of its an­nual Ig No­bel Prize, it’s Abra­hams’ job to de­cide whether they are.

“We as­sess the en­tries by two cri­te­ria,” Abra­hams says. “To win the Ig No­bel prize you need to have done some­thing that makes peo­ple laugh, and then think.” Ideally, you should also make peo­ple ar­gue. “The ex­tent to which peo­ple will dis­agree about what re­search is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is re­ally in­ter­est­ing.”

For those en­trants judged wor­thy, up for grabs is a no-ex­penses-paid trip to the an­nual award cer­e­mony at Har­vard Univer­sity. There, the win­ners are in­vited on stage to col­lect their prize from a gen­uine No­bel lau­re­ate while the au­di­ence hurls pa­per planes at them. Their ac­cep­tance speech had best be brief. Should they prat­tle on, a young girl sta­tioned by the podium is at rights to squeal, “Please stop: I’m bored.”

While the Ig No­bels are clearly a par­ody of the No­bel Prizes, Abra­hams says the aim is to cel­e­brate hu­man in­quiry, not mock it. Ab­surd though the win­ning en­tries might sound, each is an ex­am­ple of the la­bo­ri­ous, unglam­orous ef­fort that pro­vides the back­bone of hu­man progress. “At school you’re taught ‘so and so dis­cov­ered this im­por­tant thing’,” Abra­hams ex­plains. “But these dis­cov­er­ies were rarely wel­comed. Gen­er­ally those who made a sig­nif­i­cant break­through were told they were crazy or stupid.”

Abra­hams’ bug­bear is that many of us haven’t grown out of this mind­set. “When you hear about a bit of re­search and in­stantly think ‘that’s crazy,’ what you’re re­veal­ing is that you don’t know any­thing about it.” Hence Abra­hams’ fond­ness for the de­bate that typ­i­cally comes out of the Ig No­bels. As he puts it, “If peo­ple re­ally start ar­gu­ing on the merit of the win­ners, they may look at the re­search a lit­tle more closely and their opin­ions might change.” The win­ner of the 2017 Physics Prize is a good ex­am­ple. By show­ing that cats fit the tech­ni­cal def­i­ni­tion of both solids and liq­uids, the pa­per’s au­thor ac­tu­ally high­lighted de­fi­cien­cies in how we de­fine the two states. Through the lure of hu­mour, Abra­hams is try­ing to get peo­ple to work through their in­nate pre­con­cep­tions about what con­sti­tutes good science.

That be­ing said, some of the prizes handed out can also be seen as po­lit­i­cal swipes or wry com­men­da­tions for novel ini­tia­tives. In 2010, year of the Deepwater Hori­zon oil spill, the Chem­istry Prize was awarded to BP “for dis­prov­ing the old be­lief that oil and wa­ter don’t mix”. The 2007 Peace Prize, mean­while, went to the U.S. Air Force Wright Lab­o­ra­tory “for in­sti­gat­ing re­search and de­vel­op­ment on a chem­i­cal weapon – the so-called ‘gay bomb’ – that will make en­emy sol­diers be­come sex­u­ally ir­re­sistible to each other.”

On some oc­ca­sions, the Ig No­bels have even taken a dig at the field of re­search it­self. Such, at least, was the case for the Neu­ro­science Prize of 2012, which was picked up by four Amer­i­cans “for demon­strat­ing that brain re­searchers, by us­ing com­pli­cated in­stru­ments and sim­ple sta­tis­tics, can see mean­ing­ful brain ac­tiv­ity any­where – even in a dead sal­mon.” If only there was an award for “un­veil­ing our propen­sity, as a species, to be­lieve in things that we want to – and dis­miss out of hand those that we don’t”, Abra­hams would be a shoo-in.

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