A little titter among the test tubes 2

March 7, 2003

As the Ig Nobel tour hits the UK, a Bernard Levin lampoon from the days before science learnt to laugh at itself

My well-known belief that all scientists are mad has just received support so powerful that for a time it threatened to unhinge my own reason, and by the time I have finished this morning I fear that many of you will be unshakably convinced that it did.

The subject is, on the one hand, autokinetic phenomena, and, on the other, noses. With noses I shall presume that you are familiar; autokinesis, which may be less so, is the curious optical illusion in which, if you are staring in otherwise complete darkness at a fixed point of light, the light seems to move, though in fact it does not. These things are brought together, though for the moment you are no doubt unable to see how (rest assured that you may be in the same bewildered condition even when I have explained), in Nature , the eminently respectable scientific magazine, by a Mr Frederick, of the University of Aberdeen.

(Mr Frederick writes from the psychology department, which suggests that he certainly ought to be all right in the head, it being, you might say, his job to be. But he may be a patient from a local funny-farm brought along for the students to practise on.) Mr Frederick begins by quoting a fellow worker in this field, one Bower, who points out that most animals, including man, have noses so positioned that they are visible to the wearer. (You can only see your nose properly if you cross your eyes and look down; but it is undeniably visible, on the edge of your visual field, all the time.) From that Bower goes on to wonder whether the nose plays some part in visual perception, and whether, therefore, people with no noses have impaired vision. ("Unfortunately," says Frederick, "this clinical condition is now rarely encountered" - oh, what a shame - this making it very difficult to test the theory.)

Baffled, the good Frederick turns the problem neatly on its head. In the autokinetic experiment, the nose must be, ex hypothesi , invisible. Why not, therefore, make it visible and see if the light point still seems to move? But if you make the nose visible, by switching the lights on, the darkness on which the optical illusion depends, will vanish. And at that point, Doc Frederick gets into his stride. Hark:

Two alternative methods suggest themselves. The subject may wear a luminous false nose, or small electric light bulbs may be inserted in his nostrils, illuminating the nose from within. Each method has disadvantages. The luminous false nose has a pale greenish-white appearance and does not correspond in size and conformation to the subject's own nose...

Well, no. And not only in size and conformation, I should have thought, unless Doc Frederick is in the habit of meeting people with pale greenish-white noses, which would speedily drive even me off my head, and I'm not a scientist. But there are also the disadvantages of the other method to be considered - the one where they shove small electric light bulbs up your nostrils and switch on.

The inserted light bulbs involve a degree of physical discomfort, but the organ visible is the subject's own (unless young Frederick, with one of those high-pitched giggles, has switched noses on the poor devil while his attention was distracted), even though translucent pink in colour. [What do you mean, "even though"? It's better than pale greenish-white, isn't it?]

Each of the subjects (12 girls, with an average age of 18.56 years, to quote our meshuggeneh again) had one period staring at a point of light while wearing a luminous false nose, one wearing light bulbs in the nostrils, and one wearing nothing but the nose she was born with. No significant results, either for the onset of the autokinetic illusion, or its duration, were found.

That would have been enough, I imagine, for you and me; indeed, for me it would have been considerably more than enough. But old Doc Nosey is made of stouter stuff, and besides, it wasn't his nose he was shoving light bulbs up or covering in "a standard moulded rubber artificial nose, coated with non-toxic luminous paint". (I forgot to mention that throughout the experiments the subjects also wore earmuffs. Frederick says that this was "to avoid interference from irrelevant auditory stimuli", but I say it was because Frederick is as mad as a March hare, and possibly a good deal madder.) So he got together a second group, adding 12 young men to his dozen ladies. "No effects of sex," he records demurely, "were observed."

(Well, of course they weren't - you'd taken care to see that pitch darkness prevailed throughout, hadn't you?) Nor, for that matter, was there any significant difference in the autokinetic phenomenon, either, though - leaving nothing to chance, you see - Frederick also tested his subjects in a control condition in which the subject wore an ordinary (non-luminous) false nose or in which light bulbs were inserted in the nostrils but were not illuminated .

Are you sure you have got the picture? I mean, the whole picture? In case you have not, let's have a recap. Twelve young men and 12 young women are sitting around in total darkness, each wearing earmuffs (and also - I forgot this bit, too - a "voluminous cloth of black, non-reflective material similar, except in colour, to those used by hairdressers"). Some are wearing pale greenish-white luminous false rubber noses; some have donned ordinary non-luminous false noses; some have light bulbs stuck up their nostrils, and of these some are illuminated, while others are not; some are sitting there, feeling smug as all-get-out, with nothing on or in their noses at all. There is complete silence (no doubt broken from time to time - though crazy Frederick does not mention it - by a sneeze or two).

Everybody is staring fixedly at a point of light, apart, I suppose, from those who have fallen asleep, or are laughing so helplessly that the tears are pouring down their faces and preclude them from observing anything at all. And round and about, and in and out, there skips Mad Fred, clutching his clipboard; sometimes he has his hand inside his jacket like that , to indicate that he is Napoleon, sometimes, when the fit is on him, he is heard insisting querulously that he is Julius Caesar, anon he claims, as well he might, that he is the Dong with the Luminous Nose. No significant effect of any kind is recorded, and Oor Daftie goes back to his Aberdeen funny-farm a madder and wiser man.

And when he gets there, so help me, he concludes that "it may be that the techniques employed were not sufficiently refined". For my own part, I would say that they certainly were not - indeed, that so far from being refined, they approached uncomfortably close to being coarse. Yet all, even now, is not lost: "The project," says Frederick, "is at an early stage."

Is it indeed? Then none of you can say that you have not been warned. There is a man running about Aberdeen at this very moment who is liable to descend on innocent citizens, clap earmuffs and voluminous non-reflective black hairdresser's swaddlings upon them, jam artificial rubber noses over their own, ram light bulbs up their nostrils, and drag them off to a nearby cellar, there to work his wicked will upon them - the wicked will in question being to make them stare at a fixed point of light and tell him when it starts to move. "Canst thou tell," asks Lear's Fool, "why one's nose stands i' the middle on's face?" "No," says Lear. "Why," comes the reply, "to keep one's eyes of either side's nose." The Mad Scientist of Aberdeen could hardly have put it better.

Bernard Levin first published this article in The Times on June 7 1977.

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