The Oddest Corners

The record of human brilliance stretches across centuries, with numerous landmarks to light its way. The invention of the wheel. The discovery of the smallpox vaccine. Ideas that helped us unlock the structure of genetics, the movements of the heavens, and the creation of computer games that keep you up until 3 in the morning. (Ahem.)

And then – there are the other achievements.

Like the brassiere that converts into a pair of protective face masks.

Or the use of live crocodiles to encourage or discourage gamblers.

Or the recipe to partially un-boil an egg.

For this sort of thing, you want the Ig Nobel Prizes, given out since 1991 for unlikely discoveries that “make people laugh and then make them think,” according to the organizers. Some of the awards have been tongue-in-cheek, such as the ones given to Dan Quayle for demonstrating the need for better science education, or to Volkswagen for their, uh, creative approach to the problem of reducing vehicle emissions. But most reflect actual study or achievement, even if the project is a bit … unlikely? Bizarre? Even silly?

I love this kind of stuff.

Mind you, I have nothing against awards for excellence – I’ve won a few and written about many more. But as anyone who’s watched a four-hour Oscar ceremony knows, the concept can get a little over-the-top. (Especially in years when you go on for four hours and then give out the wrong Oscar, but, hey, I’m sure that’ll only be remembered for two or three centuries.)

So we get things like the Razzies, honoring the worst movies ever made. Or the Darwins, recognizing those who improved the gene pool by leaving it. Distinctions that present a cautionary tale and a reason to laugh at ourselves.

By itself, that might be enough justification for the Ig Nobels. Heaven knows we need all the laughter we can get in today’s world. But I especially like the Igs (can I call them Igs? Thank you.) because of a larger concept they illustrate – that ANYTHING can be thought about in a scientific way.

Science encourages questions, even about the seemingly obvious. In that, it has a lot in common with my old field of journalism, where one of the fundamental maxims is “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Ask, explore, discover, and ask again.

But as a species, we are horrible at questioning ourselves. Five minutes on any social media platform will show how quickly we grow defensive and how rarely we listen. Even in the offline world, conversations often become less about exchanging ideas and experiences, and more about waiting for an opening to grab the microphone. Our assumptions become positions to defend and hills to die on, rather than invitations to actually learn.

And so, I treasure anything that encourages asking questions. Even silly ones. After all, if we get practice in asking the odd questions, how much more likely do the reasonable ones become?

And sometimes, even the odd questions yield something useful. It turns out that playing a digeridoo actually can help sleep apnea a little bit (breathing exercises are breathing exercises), that roller coasters may help some symptoms of asthma, and that looking at pretty pictures might affect how much pain you feel while being shot in the hand with a laser.

OK, so that last one may not be all that useful except to Luke Skywalker. But give it time.  And in that time, keep asking more questions.

It’s a noble pursuit. Or even an Ig Nobel one.