Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Improbable Research, and the Ig Nobel Prizes.

A pancake.  It will make sense later, trust me.  Source.

The 2011 Ig Nobel Prizes have been awarded.  No, there is no affiliation with the far more prominent Nobel Prizes.  My interest in the Ig variant is the wedding of two things I love: science and humour.

When the Ig Nobel Prizes were established, they were defined as those experiments which "can not, or should not, be repeated."  This included experiments such as the one featured on the popular television show Myth Busters, that concluded a human swims equally well in water as it does in gelatin.  It turns out that the added resistance of gelatin both hinders forward movement is made up for by the resistance to the swimmer's stroke.  Fittingly, the current description of Ig Nobel winning research is that which first makes you laugh, but then makes you think.

To accompany the Ig Nobel prizes is a journal, the Annals of Improbable Research.  It provides an outlet for research gems to which I am occasionally directed.  A recent discovery of mine was this article which shows that, mathematically speaking, the State of Kansas is flatter than a pancake.  Of course, when presented with such knowledge I smile and chuckle to myself.  Then, as intended by the editors of the Annals, I think to myself how remarkable such a discovery is.  I am also reminded of a potentially unsubstantiated claim that, were a billiard ball the size of the Earth, its imperfections would be deeper than the Marianas Trench, and higher than Mount Everest.  I would imagine that this is a testament to the power of gravity, but am certainly not an expert on the subject.

Of course, in the midst of mildly hilarious research material, there is also that which raises more concerning issues.  One winner for literature is Alan Sokal for his paper "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity".  Sokal submitted the paper to the journal Social Text in an effort to show that it would publish anything that sounded good and supported the preconceptions of the editors.  The paper was written to be nonsensical with heavy usage of quotations from postmodern academics on topics of math and physics (i.e. not entirely accurate).  At the same time Transgressing the Boundaries was published, Sokal revealed to Lingua Franca that the entire article was a hoax, and its submission was meant to discredit Social Text on the basis of the latter publication's lack of intellectual rigor [fact checking].  The publication process is certainly an important part of modern academia, and shortcomings of this nature are important to catch and note.  Sokal just found a hilarious way of doing so, and I enjoyed reading about it.

I would encourage you to google the Ig Nobel prizes and take a look at past winners.  I hope you will smile, and then think.  I enjoy doing so, perhaps you will too.