An Ig Nobel before a Nobel.

"The Stinker" - The Official Mascot of the Ig Noble prizes (Courtesy of the Ig Noble Prize website)

Being a scientist is tough. There’s no two ways about it. It has huge rewards, but also involves a lot of dedication, hard work and Lady Luck. Late-night endeavours are frequent and don’t always lead to results. The system is slow, and publications don’t come easily. As graduate students, we are constantly under stress and, sometimes, we forget the bigger picture. If you want to keep your sanity, not being attached to the outcome of an experiment is a necessary quality in research. All the more reason not to take yourself too seriously. That is also why it is important to celebrate science and see the humour in it all.

Luckily, I am not the first person to think this way. Satire has been around for a long time to ease our displeasures with the world. Cue the Ig Nobel Prizes. This is not a typo, but rather a sort of parody of the Nobel Prizes. These awards are handed out every year for research considered improbable by the scientific humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research (AIR). Yes, such a magazine does exist.

The Ig Nobel Prizes have actually been around for over 20 years, and recognize genuine achievements. In 2012, one of the awards was given to a paper published in the Journal of Serendipitous and Unexpected Results (again, this is not a typo), for which a researcher (Craig Bennett of the University of California, Santa Barbara) used fMRi to examine the brain of a dead salmon as it was being shown pictures of humans to see whether it could detect emotions.

The whole salmon-in-an-MRI-scanner started as a joke. Before scanning a person, the equipment is checked and the background level is accounted for by using a phantom object as a control. Because any object can be used for this purpose, Bennett and colleagues, for the fun of it, decided to use random objects, which is how they ended up with a dead salmon in the MRI machine. The Ig Nobel Prizes’ motto is to “first make people laugh, and then make them think.” Funny as the subject matter may be, the paper’s authors argue that fMRI science can be prone to false signals and that scientists should use rigorous statistical corrections to interpret the data. If fMRI data is not carefully interpreted, brain researchers can potentially find brain activity anywhere, even in a dead fish.

One of our own McGill professors, Peter Brass, also won an Ig Nobel Prize in the past, for his work titled : injuries due to falling coconuts. Although it sounds like a laughing matter, such injuries are quite real in places like Papua New Guinea, where Prof. Brass was stationed as an MD and where people nap under palm trees. When asked about receiving an Ig Nobel Prize, he said: “Life is hard. It’s good to have a laugh now and then.”

Another award winner is probably also laughing now. Andre Geim from the University of Nijmegen became the first person to win both an Ig Nobel and a Nobel Prize. Incidentally, the Ig Nobel came first, in 2000, for research on frog levitation using electromagnetism. Then, in 2010, he shared the Nobel prize in physics for his work on graphene. 

Perhaps we all need to risk a little ignobility in order to become noble. Work hard, be dedicated, but remember to take yourself lightly.For those who are interested, the next Ig Nobel Prize ceremony is scheduled for September 12, 2013. 

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