“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” Whether or not Carl Sagan actually said those words, there’s no denying the truth of them. So it might seem counterproductive for the Ig Nobel Prize to poke fun at research of any kind, no matter how ridiculous it might seem. Look a little closer, though, and you’ll see that there’s method in that scientific madness.
For a lot of people, science has about as much appeal as accounting. Sure, there are huge, important discoveries. But for the most part, science and research are seen as countless dull hours spent poring over test tubes and incomprehensible equations.
And when millions of dollars in science funding can sometimes lead to no useful result, people are quick to jump on the bandwagon and criticize research that seems like a two-year-old could have done it. Like the study that tested more than three thousand people to come up with the conclusion that high heels make your feet hurt. Or the study that set out to discover whether men were bothered by going bald.
At first glance, the Ig Nobel Prize seems to encourage the ridicule of seemingly obvious research. Organized by the magazine Annals of Improbable Research, the prize is handed out in a yearly ceremony by real Nobel Laureates (in funny costumes, of course). But while the categories seem serious enough, such as physics, psychology, and public health, the winners are chosen primarily because their research made the judges laugh.
Winners of the prize offer some fine examples of silly science. In 2014, the Ig Nobel for Neuroscience went to a team that studied “what happens in the brains of people who see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast.” In 2013, the Physics prize was awarded “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.”
A waste of time and funding? Not at all, especially when you consider the other main criteria of the judges. First, the research has to make them laugh. Then it has to make them think.
Take the 2014 Ig Nobel Physics winner, for example. That prize was given for “measuring the amount of friction between a shoe and a banana skin, and between a banana skin and the floor, when a person steps on a banana skin That’s on the floor.” Cue the jokes about slipping on banana peels?but don’t forget that studying the lowly peel’s gel-like qualities is also helping with research on cartilage and human joints.
And that study on seeing Jesus in toast (known as face pareidolia) also examined whether participants saw letters that weren’t really there. It’s the type of research that could help thousands of people who struggle with dyslexia and other visual-input conditions.
So bring on the Ig Nobel Awards, and make ?em laugh. Because we might just discover that it really is the best medicine after all.
S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.