The Ig Nobel Prize for science and research keep us amused with their far-fetched hypotheses, but there’s a serious side to them too
Last weekend, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to scientists Carolyn Bertozzi, Morten Meldal and Barry Sharpless, for discovering reactions that let molecules snap together to create new compounds.
It’s a discovery to be proud of, for sure. But you know what those researchers didn’t do? Win a prize for researching the mating habits of constipated scorpions.
That honour went to Solimary García-Hernández and Glauco Machado from the University of São Paulo in Brazil. And it’s not a Nobel Prize – it’s an Ig Nobel Prize.
These awards, which were announced in mid-September, might not be held in quite the academic esteem as the Nobels.
Established in 1991 by Marc Abrahams, the editor and co-founded of the academic journal Annals of Improbable Research, these awards celebrate the quirkier side of science.
In the class of 2022, the prize for medicine went to a team at the University of Warsaw that demonstrated that painful mouth sores caused by the cancer drug melphalan could be helped by patients eating ice cream or popsicles.
The physics prize went to Frank E. Fish of West Chester University and a team from the University of Strathclyde and Jiangsu University of Science and Technology for trying to understand how ducklings manage to swim in formation.
And the art history prize went to two researchers who used a multidisciplinary approach to analyse ritual enema scenes in ancient Maya pottery.
Past winners include New Zealander James Watson, for his article exploring the great exploding trousers controversy of the 1930s and Justin O. Schmidt, an entomologist who allowed himself to be stung by dozens of insects and rated and described the level of pain on a scale from one to four (a yellowjacket’s sting – pain level 2 – was described as being “hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.” The bullet ant, which had the highest rating of 4, was “pure, intense, brilliant pain…like walking over flaming charcoal with a three-inch nail embedded in your heel.”)
But what’s the point to this research, which some might uncharitably describe as pointless, or wasteful?
Allan Blackman, a chemistry professor at AUT, says while these studies and experiments can seem silly on the surface, some of them do have practical applications further down the line.
“The 2000 physics award [was] all about levitating frogs with magnets.
“One of the guys on this paper was a guy named Andre Geim… he won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2010, which makes him the only winner of an Ig Nobel Prize and a Nobel Prize.
“His work has [led to practical advancements]: apparently the Chinese are very interested in magnetic levitation in making a space that would approximate lunar gravity. And so they’re doing that now with magnets. This follows on from Geim’s work – so it’s not all stupidity.
“This isn’t all just for fun. The majority of them are real scientific studies, done by people generally in institutions around the world…and being published in scientific journals.”
Blackman says another serious undercurrent to the awards is demonstrating the creativity and joy that can result from conducting research for research’s sake.
“To get slightly political, the funding agencies nowadays almost require that you come up with the results of your proposal before you actually do the work. This is what I’m going to achieve in the next five years, boom boom boom.
“You can’t know that. And it seems to be very short-sighted: everything has to have an application, you can’t just do research for research’s sake anymore, you’re not going to get funded to do that, you’ve got to promise to change the world.”
Blackman says while some people might recoil at the idea of academics – often funded by taxpayer dollars – doing research into the decongestive properties of orgasms, most academic advancements are low-profile and incremental.
“The whole point of academia is teaching. Without students we wouldn’t have universities.
“Teaching is absolutely vital. Research, I believe, comes after that. And what are you doing with research? You are trying to advance knowledge, to look at things that haven’t been done before.
“.0001 percent of all the research done at all the universities around the world might change the world, but everything else is an advancement of human knowledge. Thanks to that work we know things we didn’t know yesterday. And I think that’s important.”
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