Last Wednesday, I wrote about this year’s Ig Noble prizes, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek take-off from the Nobel awards singling out outstanding examples of “improbable research,” defined by the prize organizers as “research that makes you laugh and think.” I described the 2018 awardees, which included a team that worked on human saliva as a cleaning agent. (My fellow columnist Peter Wallace says the substance does work.)
I thought I’d probe a bit more into the people behind the prizes, so I went to their amazing website (improbable.com), which is packed with information, including a bit about the people behind the site.
The moving force behind the awards is mathematician Marc Abrahams, also described as a “science humorist.” Abrahams is assisted by a small staff and a large editorial board of 50 scientists (including, the website boasts, Nobel Prize laureates, and one convicted felon, a fellow whose claim to fame is releasing the first computer worm for which he was arrested, tried and convicted). Beyond the staff and board are volunteers from all over the world who help find examples of improbable research and candidates for the Ig Noble awards. (I notice there has been no Ig Noble laureate yet from the Philippines, despite our being awards-crazy, so maybe we should start nominating.)
Abrahams’ group produces what it calls Annals of Irreproducible Results (AIR—and its producers admit they are AIRHeads) and the website has regular updates, in lay language, about all kinds of improbable research.
I hadn’t realized, until I looked at this website, that there had been a project to look at sexual fetishes, most of which are attached to parts of the body (feet seem to be the most popular), but also include objects associated with the body. So, people with a fetish for ears might also have a fetish for… headphones. In a future column, I’ll tell you why it’s important to know about these fetishes.
My point for today’s column is that science is indeed serious stuff, but scientists are humans, too, their research agenda sometimes pushed by personal interests that may seem almost strange. When you think about it, cinema and mass media have tended to portray scientists as people on the edge, from eccentrics to, well, the mad scientist working on Frankenstein-like projects.
At the University of the Philippines, we have hundreds of research projects going on each year, some that seem almost esoteric and yet do have relevance—for example, deploying bots or electronic robots on the internet to look for new words in Philippine languages.
A good scientist is a curious person, always asking why, and never content with the answers. Let me brag, too, that social scientists can be more inquisitive and more persistent than natural scientists in trying to figure out why humans are the way we are.
Nothing should be considered too trivial. Take one Ig Noble awardee last year, James Heathcote, a general practitioner from England, who measured people’s ears to test the hypothesis that older men have bigger ears. He measured the ears of 200 patients and found that, indeed, they do grow about 2 millimeters per decade, after the age of 30. He reported that women’s ears also grow with age, but the changes are less visible because their ears are smaller to start with, and the changes might not be as noticeable because the ears are more often covered by hair.
The research caught my attention because, among the Chinese, large ears are said to be a predictor of long life. Heathcote’s research shows how folk beliefs are sometimes post facto or after the fact. Many (maybe even most) older people have large ears, so we presume the large ears gave them the long life, when it’s the other way around!
The “improbable” research articles are published in some of the most respectable and well-known journals, as well as in some of the more obscure ones, with titles that tell us how curious scientists can be. You have the Journal of Impotence Research, the Journal of Gambling Studies and, not surprisingly, a Journal of Happiness Research.
It takes happy scientists to look into happiness. As a university administrator, I’d like our researchers to be a happy lot, with a sense of humor. I was struck, too, by researcher Heathcote who, when he accepted his Ig Noble award, said there was something magical about measuring ears. That should remind us that good scientific research is magical, too, in the way it unlocks mysteries.
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