Three cheers, and a few jeers, for weird science
You know you've done something special when you're invited to travel across the globe to accept a prize of plastic chattering teeth from a Nobel laureate. You may feel a strange sense of pride as you give your acceptance speech despite the paper airplanes careening toward you and the pig-tailed 9-year-old berating you for being boring.
Being an Ig Nobel Prize-winner is all this and more. The annual ceremony, held this year on Oct. 3 at Harvard University, toasts science "that cannot and should not be reproduced." Featuring 10 winners from seven countries who paid their own way the show was an international blockbuster of science humor. And there's a constructive side to all the shenanigans: making science more appealing to students.
"There's a tradition that science has to be important and serious, which seems to be a pretty good way to scare people," says emcee Mark Abrahams.
And frightened students are not good learners. In the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, a study sponsored by the US Department of Education, 82 percent of high school seniors scored below the minimum acceptable level for science proficiency.
For students who think science is as entertaining as a silent film, the Igs offer a different view. William Lipscomb, Nobel laureate and professor emeritus at Harvard, says he comes every year because the Ig Nobels prove that anyone can "have a lot of fun with science." Students from the Commonwealth School in Boston agreed. "We loved it," they chorused after the show.
This kind of student response is making teachers turn for help to the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR). It promotes the Ig Nobel Prizes and organizes a similar show at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It also publishes the AIR magazine, and Mr. Abrahams, the editor, insists everything featured in it is legitimate research.
A teacher reading AIR could come across some pedagogically useful research after perusing a book review of the Nairobi telephone directory or looking at ads for the "Studmuffins of Science" calendar.
Turtle Haste, a science teacher at Laguna (N.M.) Middle School, uses AIR research on bubble-gum physics and potato-chip aerodynamics because it is "something my students can really sink their teeth into," she says. Ms. Haste considers the AIR wackiness essential to her teaching. "People don't realize how much playing is a part of science and a part of human nature," she says. "People who become scientists have the ability to think outside of the box, which isn't something we're normally taught to do."
Even the Ig Nobel winners themselves consider their work a way to generate student interest in the subject. This year's biology winner, Charles Paxton of the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, enthusiastically accepted the Ig for exploring the courtship behavior of ostriches toward humans. "I'm very keen on the popularization of science," he says, "no matter what the personal embarrassment."
A sample of the 2002 Ig Nobel Prize-winners
Interdisciplinary Research: A comprehensive study of bellybutton lint, Karl Kruszelnicki
Physics: "Demonstration of the Exponential Decay Law Using Beer Froth," A. Leike
Mathematics: "Estimation of the Total Surface Area in Indian Elephants," K.P. Sreekumar and G. Nirmalan
Literature: "The Effects of Pre-Existing Inappropriate Highlighting on Reading Comprehension," V.L. Silvers and D.S. Kreiner
Peace: Promoting peace between man and dog with Bow-Lingual, a dog-to-human translating device, K. Sato, M. Suzuki, and N. Kogure
Hygiene: Inventing a washing machine for cats and dogs, Eduardo Segura