English review - A Celebration of Goofy Research
Can absurd science be good science? Marc Abrahams founded the Ig Nobel prize in 1991. The goal was to recognize the efforts of ‘improbable’ researchers and shine a light on the value of their research for the world to see. In his own words, candidates for the prize are the ones “that make people laugh, then think.” One thing was sure when Abrahams walked on the Lindenberg’s hall stage wearing a top hat: loud laughs would be heard throughout the event.
Sharing the stage with Abrahams were two former winners of the Ig Nobel Prize. Mark Dingemanse is a linguist who works as an associate professor at the Centre for Language Studies at Radboud University. He won the Ig Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015 for his research on the word ‘huh?’. Kees Moeliker is a biologist and the director of the Natural History Museum of Rotterdam. He won the Ig Nobel in Biology in 2015 for his research on homosexual necrophiliac ducks. After the two winners held presentations about their works, all three speakers sat down for a brief discussion with philosopher Lisa Doeland, program manager at Radboud Reflects.
Ig Nobel Prizes: a Couple of Examples
Listening to Abrahams lecture, one could immediately understand that the strongest motivation for his project is celebrating all these peculiar researchers that he is so proud of. Indeed, he started by remembering two recently deceased Ig Nobel winners. Psychologist John Senders won in 2011 with research about safety and distraction while driving an automobile. The audience was shown a brief video of an experiment where the psychologist himself is driving wearing a helmet that regularly impedes his view by lowering a screen in front of his eyes. Troy Hurtubise, who won in 1998, spent seven years building an armor suit that would, hopefully, allow him to spend some time alone with a grizzly bear. This was illustrated with a video of him wearing the suit and being hit by bats, then by a truck.
The Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony
The only criteria needed for a research to become a candidate for the prize, is that it has to make people laugh, then think. The ceremony itself, where the winners are invited to present their work, mostly revolves around being ridiculous. Every year an eight-year-old girl is invited to stay on stage the whole night and stop all speakers when she feels they talked too much by saying, in a loop, “please stop, I’m bored.” The ceremony also involves different cheap, hand-made prizes every year (handed by Nobel prize winners), a little opera written by Abrahams himself and a prize in money consisting of three trillion dollars from Zimbabwe. Moreover, the audience continuously throws paper planes on the stage. Abrahams lecture was furnished with examples of past and recent winners, ranging from a research about the forces required to drag sheep on various surfaces, to the use of roller coaster rides to hasten the passage of kidney stones.
Linguist Mark Dingemanse gave a brief lecture about “the question on everyone’s lips,” that is, ‘huh?’. Dingemanse started by addressing the fact that science is not just about finding answers, but even more about asking the right questions. The question his research started with, was: ‘How do we understand each other, especially when we misunderstand each other?’ Our languages are equipped with question tools such as ‘what?’ and questions like these make the conversation flow. The striking finding that Dingemanse made, was that in all spoken languages we have data that there is, one slightly varied version of, the word ‘huh?’. The universality of the word was explained through a comparison with primitive hand axes. Wherever in the world they are found, their similar shape is a result of the same function they have. The word ‘huh?’ is adapted to a rapid flow of conversation and it requires the minimum effort to be spoken. Moreover, the word says something about human nature. We are highly capable of understanding that we did not understand, and we are able to cooperate to repair the conversation. One of the lessons to take home from Dingemanse was that humanity is united in asking questions and that we need to keep asking weird questions to get out of blind spots.
Homosexual Necrophiliac Ducks
Biologist Kees Moeliker started his lecture by telling how, in 1995, a new wing was built in the Natural History Museum of Rotterdam. The building, made of glass, had the side effect of being repeatedly hit by birds, who would die in the unfortunate collusion. The up side was that the bird collection of the museum grew together with the casualties. On 5 June, 1995, now known as ‘Dead Duck Day,’ Moeliker found a dead male duck, after one of many collusions, who was being mounted by another alive male duck. This was the first case of homosexual necrophilia ever documented in Mallard ducks. To illustrate this event Moeliker did not only show pictures of the act, but also brought along the stuffed victim. After publishing a paper about this unique case, he did not only win the Ig Nobel Prize, but also started getting documents about peculiar animal behavior from all over the world. These events lead both to a best-selling book and a permanent exhibition at the museum: ‘Dead Animal Tales.’
The Importance of Goofiness
So, why is laughing important in scientific research and what is the value of improbable research? The end discussion shed a light on this question. According to Abrahams, we laugh at things that are out of our ordinary experience. However, to the researchers in question, these things might appear like regular daily findings. There is something in the goofiness of things that makes them worth looking at and, as a result, something that does not seem important at first, indeed might just make you laugh at first, but then, eventually, will make you think.
This report was written by Josephine Pascoe, as part of the Research Master Philosophy of the Radboud University.