Night of the Ig wannabes

March 5, 2004

Some dream of the Nobel, some the letters FRS, but for those who really want to cut a dash in science only one award counts - an Ig Nobel. Geoff Watts surveys a cultural phenomenon.

Hallelujah! You've won a prize. Out of myriad research findings jostling for recognition, someone has noticed yours and decided to reward you. Quick, down the pub or open the bubbly.

And why not? Well, suppose the work that's earned you plaudits is a report on the optimal way to dunk a biscuit, or the medical consequences of collapsing toilets in Glasgow, or how breakfast cereals go soggy. Could you accept the citation and the applause at face value? Or would you suspect that your cherished research was being held up to public ridicule?

The annual Ig Nobel prize confronts recipients with just such a dilemma.

Most seem to hesitate only momentarily before accepting an award. But for a few at least, the cheesy grin for the cameras at the ceremony may be through gritted teeth - not because of any lack of a sense of humour, but because of slight unease at the company being kept.

Science that makes you smile, then makes you think - that's how the Ig Nobel organisers summarise their key criterion. The prizes are intended "to celebrate the unusual, honour the imaginative and spur people's interest in science, medicine and technology". Nominations go before a board (which includes a clutch of "real" Nobel prize winners) that picks ten recipients.

Chris McManus (Ig Nobel laureate in medicine, 2002), a University College London psychologist, won his prize for a study of scrotal asymmetry in ancient sculpture.

"Quite by chance I discovered that Johann Winckelmann, the great classical 18th-century German art historian, had written an article claiming that the scrotum in Greek sculptures was asymmetric," he says.

Later, while wandering around galleries in Italy, McManus, who already had an interest in symmetry in art, realised that he had stumbled upon a wealth of research material. He began noting the heights and dimensions of the scrota. He found that although most ancient artists correctly placed the right testicle higher up, they wrongly made its counterpart slightly larger. His findings appeared in the journal Nature .

How did he respond to the award? "I was flattered, of course. It's Oscar Wilde, isn't it... the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Any scientist anywhere is pleased that someone somewhere is reading and quoting his stuff. That's what academics are for. We create ideas and send them out and hope they propagate in other people's minds."

Chris Frith and Richard Frackowiak (medicine, 2003) of the Wellcome department of imaging neuroscience, also at UCL, won an Ig Nobel for their much-publicised study of the brains of taxi drivers. They demonstrated that one portion, the hippocampus, is unusually large: a clear association with the drivers' reliance on navigational skills.

"It used to be received wisdom that the brain doesn't grow after the age of about six," Frith says. "But there's lots of evidence in animals that it undergoes dramatic changes. Songbirds relearn their songs every year, and the hippocampus grows and shrinks accordingly." The taxi-driver study showed that something similar happens in people.

The lead author of the paper reporting the findings was Eleanor Maguire, at that time still a junior researcher. When an Ig Nobel prize was first offered to the group, she worried about its consequences for her career.

For such reasons, the Ig Nobel organisers claim never to force their awards on unwilling recipients. The group said thanks - but no thanks.

Two or three year later, the offer was repeated. Maguire was by now established and the work had been vindicated. "Having been slightly off-the-wall it had become almost mainstream," Frackowiak says. This time, attracted by the award's aim to communicate science in new and entertaining ways, they accepted. Frith says: "It's good for scientists to be seen not take themselves too seriously."

Americans, predictably, get the lion's share of the prizes, but Britain also does well. "We could choose all ten from the UK every year," says Marc Abrahams, founder of the Ig Nobels and editor of the magazine Annals of Improbable Research . "I think this is to do with the tradition of not just tolerating eccentrics in the UK but being proud of them."

Bristol University's Sir Michael Berry (physics, 2001) received his prize for work on non-magnetic objects suspended in a magnetic field. One of the non-magnetic objects levitated was a living frog. The experiment was conducted by Andrey Geim, now of Manchester University but then of Nijmegen, but he asked to share it with Berry.

"Then I discovered that the president of the Royal Society - Lord May, who is actually my boss because I'm a Royal Society research fellow - had had a run-in with the Ig Nobel people because he thought they had been contemptuous of some strange but respectable work. There'd been a disagreement and an exchange of letters. So I had to write and tell Bob that I hadn't known of his feelings about the Ig Nobel, but I'd accepted one. I told him I really didn't think it was so bad. He wrote back saying neither did he, really. And it's all been smoothed over now."

But did Lord May have a point? Glance through the titles in any bunch of learned research journals and you can usually find a few that sound pretty daft. "Stuff that may be quite important can seem completely silly to the outsider," Frith concedes. So isn't there a danger of science scoring an own goal?

David Kelly (medicine, 1998), lecturer in organic chemistry at Cardiff University, also has a few reservations. He was part of a group that published a report on a chicken eviscerator who impaled his hand on a bone in the body of one of the birds he was gutting. The injury was treated, but a couple of weeks later the man started to smell of vomit. He had an anaerobic infection. The smell came from fatty acids - products of the bacterial metabolism that were percolating to the surface of his skin.

Despite the best efforts of the doctors, the problem lasted for four years before clearing up spontaneously.

"My medical colleagues were actually a bit pissed off about the award," Kelly says. "I just took it as a laugh."

That said, he points to the one aspect of the Ig Nobels that does worry some recipients: the manner in which honest researchers who have done something offbeat are mixed in with scoundrels, such as people who claim to live on sunshine. Kelly's report may have been bizarre, but the work itself was scientifically unimpeachable.

Abrahams remains unrepentant, pointing out that this is a prize where the value judgements "good" and "bad" are irrelevant. As for the juxtaposition of honest toilers with charlatans, he says: "Well, this is a basic problem in life."

Parallels come to mind with the "Golden Fleece Awards", which US Senator William Proxmire hands out to people and organisations who, he alleges, have wasted US taxpayers' money. Some recipients have included odd - although not necessarily worthless - research projects. Abrahams is motivated by an enthusiasm for science; the senator was not. So Abrahams does worry "a little bit" about being seen to do Proxmire's work for him.

Berry concedes that the Ig Nobels too can be used to mock science, but he remains relaxed about the dangers. "I got a headline in my newspaper saying 'Nutty professor who makes frogs fly'. But Abrahams, although he's a slightly wacky guy, is very firmly on the side of getting people to understand about science."

McManus puts it even more positively. "The Ig Nobels recognise the nature of science," he argues. "Scientists are strange people because they get interested in phenomena and ask why the world is like this. It's people digging around asking questions who sometimes find things that are much deeper than they ever imagined." The trouble is, you can't always tell in advance. The sniping is just something you have to live with.

Frith accepts that too much of the Ig Nobel approach might jeopardise public support for science. "But I think on balance these prizes are likely to increase it because they show that science can be interesting and entertaining."

That's a widely held view. And acquiring an Ig Nobel prize may even confer a modicum of kudos. McManus has since picked up one of the annual Aventis science book awards. At the ceremony, while waiting for the winner to be announced, one of the other finalists approached him. "Whatever happens tonight," he said, "what I really envy you is that Ig Nobel prize."

The Ig Nobels Tour 2004, presented by The Times Higher in partnership with the British Association for the Advancement of Science, begins in Oxford on March 11.

Ig Nobels Tour 2004

To celebrate National Science Week, The Times Higher and the British Association for the Advancement of Science present the Ig Nobels Tour of the British Isles.

Tour dates

Oxford March 11

Nottingham March 12

Belfast March 13

Dublin March 14

Glasgow March 15

Exeter March 16

Manchester March 17

London March 18

Birmingham March 20

Warrington March 22

Tickets

£5, £4 concessions
£10 group of four
Details: 020 7019 4941

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