Photo: Vero Villa (flickr)

“At first there was nothing funny about it…”

Science that makes people laugh and then think

by Irina Pader

 IgNobel prize laureates visit Karolinska Institutet and talk about their work and the funny side of science

IgNobel prize (a wordplay of the word “ignoble”, meaning dishonorable or unworthy): the “cousin” of the real Nobel prize, the “satirical counterpart”, the “parody”… Inaugurated 1992 by Marc Abrahams, it honors scientific achievements that first make people laugh, and then think: mostly unusual, imaginative science, with a humorous touch. But where do you draw the line between a serious and seemingly not so serious research question? How do you decide if you pursue a research question that might sound a bit funny from the beginning? Medicor got the opportunity to talk to four IgNobel laureates while they were on a stopover in Stockholm during the 2015 IgNobel Europe tour.

Dr. Jaroslav Flegr from Czech Republic, IgNobel winner of 2014 in the category “public health” with the project: Changes in personality profile of young women with latent toxoplasmosis – effects on mental health by owning a cat

Can it really be “mentally hazardous” to own a cat? This question was going around in my head before I met Dr. Flegr, who is an evolutionary biologist and parasitologist. One of his research interests is toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease mainly found in cats, but which can also be transmitted to humans. Dr. Flegr is particularly interested in understanding if and how the parasite can manipulate the behavior of its host. He started with this research about 25 years ago and explains that, at the time, only a very small amount of funding was available. Since the researchers could not rely on expensive animal models, they simply started to use humans instead: “They are much cheaper, a lot of fresh students are coming all the time!” says Dr. Flegr with laughter. More seriously he adds that it is very easy to test if people are affected by toxoplasma and to compare behavior and the personality profile of infected versus non-infected subjects. Nonetheless he has been criticized for this research approach for not “involving enough molecules”, and other researchers consider it “ancient science” to give questionnaires to people. “But they were not awarded the IgNobel prize!” says Dr. Flegr happily. So what are the mental effects? “People who are infected with toxoplasma have a 2.7 times higher probability of traffic accidents and a similar increase of schizophrenia”, says Dr. Flegr, and points out that with one third of all people infected, this becomes a very serious issue. “Of course I also have a lot of normal papers and I think some side-products of my research are very important.” Dr. Flegr refers to his finding that Rhesus factor positive and Rhesus factor negative people have a different susceptibility to several diseases, including toxoplasmosis. Thus, the IgNobel prize was nothing he was really aiming for, but he felt very happy about the opportunity to promote some of his “more serious research”. Dr. Flegr admits he feels that more of his research deserves the IgNobel prize: “I always do something interesting and some of these interesting things are also funny!”, he says with a smile. Which is also what he recommends to any other scientists: “My strongest recommendation is to do always something interesting, it is not important whether it is considered serious or modern or something. Do always something which is interesting. and serious discoveries will follow!”

But where do you draw the line between a serious and seemingly not so serious research question?

Dr. Sabine Begall and Dr. Pascal Malkemper from Germany, IgNobel winners of 2014 in the category “biology” for showing that when dogs defecate and urinate, they prefer to align their body axis with Earth’s north-south geomagnetic field lines

“At first there wasn’t anything funny about it!”, replies Dr. Begall when I asked about the motivation behind the project. Both Dr. Begall and Dr. Malkemper are investigating magnetic reception in mammals and are trying to find out how the Earth’s magnetic field is perceived. They are mainly working with African mole rats, which were the first mammals to be shown to have a magnetic sense. The knowledge about other mammals is still very limited because it is rather difficult to study migration routes in, for example, whales. In order to find a more accessible model system, they instead came up with dogs to study magnetic alignment. “The focus was not the dog behavior itself, they were in fact a tool to show that they can sense the magnetic field, too”, says Dr. Malkemper. At first they got a lot of negative feedback and criticism. Friends asked if they are completely out of their minds to study urine and feces of dogs. In addition, many dog owners said that this study is totally silly and they were convinced that their dogs would just align however they want. Other critics argued that they were wasting tax money. But Dr. Malkemper points out that the whole study was done in their spare-time. “It was not only a ‘just for fun’ study, we had a real scientific interest, but did it as a ‘bonus’ to our normal work with African mole rats”, he says. Dr. Begall adds: “We did not have to go out with the dogs ourselves, we just gave a compass and pen and paper to 50 dog owners.” All along they were very curious whether they would find anything or not. Finally the scientists were really surprised when the work finally paid off. Also the critics changed, all of a sudden people found it exciting and many dog owners said: “My dog can do it, too!” Both scientists were overwhelmed when they won the IgNobel Prize. Dr. Begalls advice for students is to be totally open-minded: “Always think in different directions, don’t focus on one narrow direction. Also consider the ‘impossible!’” For Dr. Malkemper it was important to realize what really inspired and fascinated him. “Do not be afraid to follow up on it even if you might encounter some head wind. Just check where you can do what you want to do and then really work towards your goal!”

Dr. Nakamats claims to hold more than 3300 patents (compared to Thomas Edison’s ‘only’ 1093 inventions)

Dr. Nakamats from Japan, IgNobel winner of 2005 in the category “nutrition” for his project to photograph every meal he has consumed over a period of 43 years

It was a true pleasure to meet 86-year-old inventor Sir Dr. Yoshiro Nakamats: Apart from being awarded the IgNobel prize in nutrition for documenting every meal he has ever taken, he was selected by the U.S. Scientific Academy as one of the greatest scientists in history and claims to hold more than 3300 patents (compared to Thomas Edison’s ‘only’ 1093 inventions). Examples of his inventions are the floppy disc, digital displays, jumping shoes with leaf springs on their soles and a kerosene pump. He showed me a book about all his inventions and impressed as I was, I asked which of his inventions was his favorite. He replied: “Do you have children? This is the answer to your question, I’ll hope you understand”. So how did he come up with all these ideas? “My main motivation is always looking for unknown things. To invent something is very difficult and for that you need to have a strong spirit!” says Dr. Nakamats. He did not know about the IgNoble prize before, but was very happy when he was awarded. “It is very important to reach higher than any other student and to be ambitious!” he recommends to students and researchers. For his inventions, he says that he did not face any sort of criticism in the past. “I am doing new things that nobody is doing. So no criticism.” Also he emphasizes that the whole point of the prize is to make people think and usually people appreciate that. While talking about future inventions, Dr. Nakamats replied that he has cancer and is going to die at the end of this year. So his present project, he explained, is to devise a cancer therapy. “I am planning to make ten inventions, ten therapies. These therapies will beat cancer”, he says. Twenty percent of the project he has done, “the rest eighty percent I must do until the end of the year.”

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