Annual awards celebrate scientific research of dubious necessity

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Each day, scientists around the world unleash a range of warnings on the unsuspecting public. Usually on a public who had been fairly happy and content until the warning was issued. As a journalist who cares deeply for public welfare and finding column ideas, I pay vigilant attention to these warnings.

A quick search for scientist warnings resulted in the following alarming headlines:

• “Scientists Warn of Arctic Economic Time Bomb”

• “Scientists Warn Atlantic Puffins in Peril”

• “Immigrants Could Cause a Superbug Apocalypse, Scientists Warn”

• “Rise in Urban Beekeeping May Have Gone to Far, Scientists Warn”

• “Anti-Obesity Campaigns May be Harmful to Some Children”

• “Smoothies and Fruit Juices are a New Risk to Health, U.S. Scientists Warn”

I did not invent any of the preceding headlines, but I am worried by them. I’m worried because if this keeps up, I will become so worried about the world around me I won’t have time for things like work, bathing or eating.

Fortunately, as I write this it is September, the one month of the year when the scientific community injects a little dose of reality into the news. For the last 23 Septembers, the Center for Improbable Research has awarded the annual Ig Nobel awards to various scientific endeavors.

According to the Center’s website, “The Ig Nobel Prizes honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.”

Mostly they make me think, “Is this where my tax money is going?” but then I think, “Hey, I wonder if I can get on the money train?”

The real benefit of the Igs, as they are called, is to remind us, the average nonscientist public, that for every Albert Einstein, there are dozen or so nincompoops who should be pantsed on a regular basis.

For example, this year the prize for Medicine went to a group of Japanese and Chinese scientists who studied the effects of playing opera music to mice who had just had a heart transplant. There was no mention whether these same scientists performed the transplants.

The prize in Biology/Astronomy went to a group of scientists who learned that lost dung beetles can find their way home by looking at the Milky Way. No one mentioned why anyone other than poor Mrs. Dung Beetle would care.

The Physics Prize was awarded to Alberto Minetti, Yuri Ivanenko, Germana Cappellini, Nadia Dominici and Francesco Lacquaniti for “discovering that some people would be physically capable of running across the surface of a pond — if those people and that pond were on the moon.”

I imagine that study first began as a barroom bet between rival scientists attempting to impress a woman.

“I may not have a very snazzy beard,” Scientist 1 says. “But I bet I can walk on water!”

“Can not!” Scientist 2 cleverly rejoinders.

And thus a two-year, $270,000 project is born. Actually I have no idea if this is how this study started (or cost) but I can’t think of any other logical scenario.

Speaking of alcohol, a group of five scientists earned the Psychology Prize for “confirming, by experiment, that people who think they are drunk also think they are attractive.”

In other news of the obvious, Bert Tolkamp, Marie Haskell, Fritha Langford, David Roberts and Colin Morgan were awarded the Probability Prize for their study titled, “Are Cows More Likely to Lie Down the Longer they Stand?”

The answer, for those of you who are curious, is maybe. These intrepid scientists discovered that cows are more likely to stand up the longer they have been lying down. But you just can’t tell when a standing cow might recline.

From years of experience milking cows in my youth, I can tell you something else you can’t predict: when a cow will try to poop on you foot. But since I’m not a scientist, I’m not eligible for an award.

For those of you not familiar with the Ig Nobel awards, you can find the last 23 years’ worth of prizes on their website, and even watch some of the award ceremonies. Yes, they have actual award ceremonies, and actual scientists show up to collect their award, handed out by other actual scientists who have won an actual Nobel Prize.

In fact, according to the Improbable Research website, each of the nominated winners is given an opportunity to “politely decline” the award. Who knows what valuable research we’re missing out on? The mind certainly boggles.

Despite my deep distrust (and even fear) of scientific research, there are times when I can admit it is valuable. For example, CNN.com recently reported that “Scientists warn of rapid-fire media dangers.”

I have always advocated for a much slower-paced media, and have done my best to live by that code because I value the three or four people who take the time to read my columns. I certainly don’t want to put the health of the general public at risk.

Despite my best intentions, however, my reluctance to file stories is often misinterpreted by my editor, which is why I need you, dear readers, to ... hey ... wait, where are you going?

Luke Hegdal can be reached at 509-526-8326 or lukehegdal@wwub.com.

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