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Science is a serious business, most of the time. Oc-

casionally, scientists take a break from their daily work

and turn to more creative research questions. Is there a

place for humour in science?

Science and humour

Chasing the Funny

Side of Science

Photo:

www.publicdomainpictures.net

/George Hodan

I

n the summer of 2006, on the remote

high Arctic island of Edgeøya in Sval-

bard, Eigil Reimers, professor emeri-

tus at the University of Oslo, found himself

dressed in white – toilet paper included –

stalking a herd of Svalbard reindeer. This

was not some lost bet (or perhaps it was)

but an impromptu field experiment where

someone needed to be the polar bear.

At the time, Reimers and his colleagues

were studying how the insular Svalbard

reindeer (

Rangifer tarandus platyrhyn-

chus

) respond to human presence. They

were wrapping up their last footage, moni-

toring vigilance and fright & flight behav-

iour of the reindeer, when they noticed that

they were not the only ones doing the ob-

serving – a polar bear was also on the prowl.

The big polar bear disguise

The research group was not too sur-

prised. Polar bear protection laws estab-

lished in the 1970s in combination with the

decreasing sea ice meant that there were

more bears in the Svalbard area. “Inter-

action between reindeer and land-locked

polar bears is increasing and we thought

that this earlier peaceful interaction has

changed the relation-

ship between the two,

into a predator-prey re-

lationship,” explains Re-

imers. Therefore, instead

of packing up and heading home, they did

the only sensible thing scientists could do

at that moment – formulate a hypothesis,

which they immediately went about test-

ing. They proposed that the reindeer had a

longer response distance (distance from ap-

proacher to reindeer) to a human disguised

as a polar bear than to a humanly-dressed

human; hence the need for a disguise (see

images on p. 15).

The results published in 2012 in

Arc-

tic, Antarctic and Alpine Research

showed

that the alert, flight initiation and escape

distances to the ‘polar bear’ were longer

than those to humans dressed in dark hik-

ing gear. In other words, the reindeer took

notice of the ‘polar bear’ when it was much

further away than a human and, thus, re-

acted earlier.

Despite what must have been a truly Os-

car-worthy performance by a well-respected

senior scientist stalking a group of reindeer,

outside the field of animal behaviour and

population ecology, this study would have

most likely gone unnoticed. But it didn’t!

Someone’s fancy got tickled and, unbe-

knownst to Reimers, submitted the study

to be considered for one of the most covet-

ed awards in the field of science – the one

which provokes laughter and then deep

thought – the prestigious Ig Nobel award.

Imaginative and bizarre

The Ig Nobel prize is organised by the

people behind the bi-monthly journal

An-

nals of Improbable Research

(AIR). The re-

search published is a little bizarre with a

lot of imagination; it includes research-

ing those burning

questions we have

all asked ourselves –

can rats tell the dif-

ference between Jap-

anese spoken backward or Dutch spoken

backward (Linguistics prize, 2007); can we

levitate frogs with a magnet (Physics prize,

2000); can a chimpanzee recognise another

chimpanzee by its rear end (Anatomy prize,

2012); why do onions make us cry (Chemis-

try prize, 2013); and, how to brew a proper

cup of tea (Literature, 1999)? Since 1991,

IgNobel awards have been handed out an-

nually by actual Nobel Prize laureates to re-

searchers whose work supports the ideals

and spirit of AIR.

“Quite simply, there is not enough hu-

mour in science. Everyone is so serious, and

everyone takes themselves so seriously.”

Such are the opinions expressed by the ar-

chitect behind

The Science Web

(

thescience-

web.wordpress.com

), a news site where the

author uses cutting humour to report on

science news from around the globe. “Mir-

acle Ebola drug to be withheld until compa-

nies figure out how to make money from it”,

“Genome to become 110% functional”, “EU

to save on admin costs by funding exactly

the same people it did last time” or “Ven-

ter to become God in 2016; Jesus to step

down” are just some of the breaking news

headlines on the

Science Web

. None of it is

real, of course, but thinly veiled to voice one

man’s frustration with what is considered

‘progress’ in science today.

Hailing from the field of genomics,

which the author, who operates under the

pseudonym ‘jovial scientist’, currently finds

intellectually bankrupt and the funding de-

cisions questionable, the blog has become

an outlet to vent frustrations using humour

– self-catharsis at its best. “There are some

amazing scientists involved”, acknowledg-

es the blogger, “but 90% of genomics is

‘sequence first, think later’. One only has

to look at the 1,000 genome projects, the

10,000 genome projects, the 100,000 ge-

nomes project to understand that these

numbers are being pulled out of a hat and

are headline makers rather than having

anything to do with actual science.”

A bunch of absurdity

The first blog a year ago reported on the

sequencing of Bigfoot’s genome. Foolish? Of

course, but, as the blogger responds, “No

more absurd than the concept of extend-

“I like nonsense; it wakes up

the brain cells”

Dr Seuss