Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Other Nobel Prize

It's that time again - the awarding of the Nobel Prize. It's the once a year ceremony that honours the most excellent work in science, literature and economics.  It is the most coveted of scientific awards, and is reserved for those that make the moon shot, career defining discoveries. The type of discoveries that cure diseases, that change our understanding of space and time and that alter the course of humanity.  Most people have heard of the Nobel, and associate it with prestige, authority and the peak achievement of a scholar or researcher. The winners often go on to enjoy rock star status amongst not only their peers but also the general public. And so they should as the work they do defines fields, it saves lives and pushes the boundaries of human knowledge. It's the reward for those that make the leap and bounds, the grand discovers, the ones who write the principles in the textbooks. But along with all that ceremony, all the glamour, it all seems just a little bit....safe. You know it will be a big discovery that will win, and often the only surprise for experts in their field is who will win when. 

Most of us will never have one. Image: Wikipedia Commons

But there is another prize, deserving of as much publicity as the Nobel. And it's one that scientists should also aspire to win. It's far more humble and doesn't come with prestige or big prize money, but it highlights the quirks of science. It's the Ig Nobel. A couple of weeks ago the 2016 awards were announced, and once again I was reminded of why I love this award, and feel it is important to science beyond a few laughs.

The Ig Nobel I feel, began as a bit of joke. It was meant to pick out the obscure, the pedantic and the near silly research that is overlooked and often buried in the masses of published articles, and allow researchers to have a bit of a giggle at themselves. It was started as a parody of the Nobel - while the Nobel is all about the big discoveries that move the world, the Ig Nobel rewards the exact opposite. It's about finding the most tedious,tiny result that matters only to the most specialised.  But the Ig Nobels have moved beyond a few laughs and highlighting just how obscure discovery can be.  This award is rapidly turning into something else with a bit more meaning. It's becoming a reflection on the reality of most of science and is a yearly celebration of the less glorious science. The  reality of science is that most research isn't big grand discoveries; it's a gradual, tedious piece by piece collection of knowledge.  It's three step forward, and two back. It's people who spend their lives engrossed by tiny steps in an enzymatic pathway, or a beetle found only on a tiny island or a motion of a planet lightyears away. The Ig Nobels represent all that is real about discovery. 

Finally, an award that represents most researchers. Image: IgNobel website

This year's Ig Nobel awards have once again highlighted questions we've all pondered, and the often obscure things that some people tackle as their life's work. The Ig Nobel motto is "designed to make you laugh, then think", and really I believe, more research needs to apply this motto. Once you get past the initial randomness or hilarity of a question, you realise there's actually a lot more depth there, and that seemingly silly or odd questions can produce surprising data. Big ideas do drive the overall scene, but the devil is in the detail, and so science moves slowly. Big ideas are great, but they aren't the reality of research. People need to know this, and appreciate it and sometimes the small and odd can have big answers or unexpected applications, and what better way to highlight this than an award that makes people laugh? The Ig Nobel prizes are therefore, important to public awareness of science, promotion of discovery and encouraging curiosity

While the Nobel prizes represent the big movers and shakers, these are effectively the 1% of the research world. The other 99% are collecting those tiny bits of knowledge that make the collective body of science, and thing is, they are equally vital, and they go hand in hand with the big discoveries. While it's important to have grand moves, without filling in the details, without the little bits of knowledge we never get a collective body of knowledge, we never confirm, and those leaps and bounds have no springboard. Those details, those random finds, they also deserve recognition.  The Ig Nobels represent the truth of science in all its obscurity, hilarity, frustration and brilliance.  

This is an award I think all of us scientists should aspire to. The Ig Nobels represent all that is great about research - odd questions, delving into the unknown, and having fun along the way. It's an award that inspires creativity and a being a little off beat, thus bringing a little fun to rigours of research. It is another way we can show the public the realities of science, and that it's not big leaps and bounds, but small and slow. But despite how it sounds, there's a lot of joy and beauty in that too.  And we have to face it, most of us scientists will never come close to taking a place on the Nobel stage. While it's nice to dream, we have to exist in reality. The random questions we ask ourselves are much more likely to result in an Ig Nobel than our chances of all making huge discoveries that change the scope of a scientific discipline. So for scientists, the Ig Nobel is important, it represents why we do science, and sometimes we need to be reminded that there is fun in discovery. Even better,  because it is so random really anybody can win, as the only requirements are that the research makes you laugh and it makes you think. Definitely easier than wrangling a Nobel committee member to nominate you! 

And just in case you are not convinced about how great the Ig Nobel prize is, I'll let the research speak for itself, with one of my favourite winners.  The Ig Nobel prize for Biology in 2011 was awarded to group who discovered jewel beetles (found in Western Australia) have a major case . It turns out the male beetles have a problem with how they perceive reality, and were mistaking the bumps on the bottom of beer bottles for female beetles, and were copulating with the bottle. But it didn't end there, the males actually had a preference for the bumps, and would refuse move even when attacked. This literally was a real world case of beer goggles. The researchers published and shortly after the bumps on beer bottles disappeared, though it's not confirmed whether the bottle manufacturers were concerned their design might lead to declining populations of the beetle, or it was just a coincidence. Sometimes what appears obscure, in fact, can have real world implications. Without those researchers who decided to examine just  what the jewel beetle was up to, who knows? We may have lost another species to extinction for a very obscure reason. You can read all about this awesome piece of work here, and here, and here.  

So I offer congratulations to both the winners of the 2016 Nobel Prizes and the 2016 Ig Nobel prizes. You're both, although in very different ways, equally valuable to the scientific community. 

For more on both awards:




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