At the Grand Academy of Lagado on the flying island of Laputa, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver encounters strange and fanciful creatures: the scientists. He observes their attempts to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, weave coloured spider webs by feeding the spiders differently coloured flies, and other absurd projects. One ardent researcher is working on “an operation to reduce human excrement to its original food by separating the several parts, removing the tincture which it receives from the gall, making the odor exhale, and scumming off the saliva.”
Swift would’ve felt completely at home at the Ig Nobel award ceremony. The most recent one was held about a month ago at Harvard University:, and featured, among much else, prizes given to researchers documenting remote-controlled helicopters collecting whale snot; rather naughty fruit bats; and a study urging people to wear socks over their shoes. This year’s offering was, if anything, relatively tame. The 2009 prize in Biology, for instance, was awarded to three Japanese researchers “for demonstrating that kitchen refuse can be reduced more than 90% in mass by using bacteria extracted from the feces of giant pandas.” The focus on feces seems to be a recurring theme: the 2007 Chemistry Ig Nobel was awarded to Mayu Yamamoto for her method of extracting vanilla flavouring from cow dung. How very Laputan.
The Ig Nobels are awarded by Annals of Improbable Research, a satirical journal produced by scientists, mostly for scientists. The Igs are awarded for scientific achievements that range all the way from the bemusing to the outright bizarre. The ceremony itself, a joyous travesty of serious award ceremonies, has been held annually since 1991 and features, among other things, much throwing of paper airplanes, a “Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobel-Laureate” contest, and Miss Sweetie Poo, a little girl who cuts short award acceptance speeches when she’s bored with them.
I’m trying to think of another community or institution that mocks itself so consistently. The Golden Raspberry award (or “Razzie”) is the obvious candidate. It functions as the Academy Awards’ evil twin, handing out prizes for the film industry’s worst achievements of the year. But although the spirit seems to be the same, there’s a difference: Razzie winners very rarely show up to collect their awards, while most of the Ig Nobel recipients show up, traveling at their own expense from all over the world. The Ig Nobel ceremony is also well attended by serious scientists: no less than nine Nobel Prize winners were presentin 2009, handing out the awards. A picture in the official Ig Nobel website shows three of them onstage, each wearing a combination brassiere/gas mask.
Is science not supposed to be a serious endeavour? Whenever the practice of science is shown in popular culture, be it on “CSI” shows or apocalyptic thriller films, the lab on the screen is gloomy and forbidding, bathed in darkness, the hush disturbed only by blinking lights and intermittent electronic beeps. The scientist is shown working alone and in silence, huddled over the microscope or expertly manipulating a computer with nary a smile or, god forbid, laughter.
Where , then, is all this foolishness coming from?
One explanation might be that science and humour are much more alike in spirit than it seems at first, though the methods used couldn’t be more different. The comic and the scientist struggle to make some sense of the world around them, and in the process, remind humankind of its frailty and vanity. Both fields are concerned with the undermining of authority and accepted wisdom, with intense observation of reality and with self-examination – key concepts in the practice of science. Scientists are expected to be very critical of their own thoughts, theories and experiments, and the Ig Nobels provide just that – a festival of foolishness to balance the pomp of the Stockholm Nobel ceremonies.
That said, there is another part to this willingness of science to revel in its own ridicule: self-directed humor is often a sign of underlying self-confidence. Perhaps one reason for this confidence may be surmised when we read some more of the Laputans’ aims in Gulliver’s Travels: “One man shall do the work of ten, a palace may be built in a week, of materials so durable as to last for ever, without repairing. All the fruits of the earth shall come to maturity at whatever season we think fit to choose…” Swift’s Laputans failed miserably at these attempts, but today such wonders and others like them, unimaginable in Swift’s time, are a reality, conjured for us by modern science. It has grown robust now; it can take, and make, a joke.