Laughing, crying, thinking and learning in science

Published 23 September 2013
It is time for the third quarterly round-up of science achievements, focussing on Australian achievements. For me, the year has flown and it sometimes seems as though I am going in circles sometimes. It is good to see the scientists – as always – have been busy.

Seriously laughing, then thinking

In the last few weeks, two sets of awards have been announced. The first are the Australian Museum Eureka awards; serious considerations of Australian research & innovation; leadership & commercialisation; school science; and science journalism & communication.

The second are the international Ig Nobel awards, published in the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR); awarded for science that makes you laugh – then think. The Australian connection with the Ig Nobels this year certainly does both!

One of my advisers is a Scientist in Schools with the Federally funded program of that name, and her motto for primary school children is "Science = Thinking." This is the aim of the Ig Nobels, which, although showing that scientists have a sense of humour, are meant to inform the general public and are in no way trivial.

Eureka awards

The complete list of 17winners can be found at: http://australianmuseum.net.au/2013-winners-eureka, and by clicking on each of the names, you can see a synopsis of their winning entries.

Here are a few that I am particularly impressed with:

Immune cells in the gut

A team from the University of Melbourne and Monash University have found out what some of the immune cells in our gut are doing there, and how they work. Following up some surprise results, they discovered an important role for vitamin B in helping our immune system set up an 'early warning' of invasive micro-organisms. This discovery will enable these researchers, and others, to understand more about the interaction of our gut bacteria in regulating infections elsewhere in the body.

I have written previously about how important the 'good bugs' in our bodies are to our health. This award acknowledges ongoing research in this area. (au.christiantoday.com)

Emerging leader shows usefulness of mathematical models

Associate Professor David Wilson of the University of New South Wales won the award for 'Emerging Leader in Science' for his work on mathematical models. A previous article of mine illustrated some uses of mathematics. http://au.christiantoday.com/article/so-mathematics-is-useful-after-all/15495.htm

Professor Wilson has shown how AIDS drugs can be better utilised in Armenia and has also proved the effectiveness of needle exchange programs in reducing infections such as AIDS and hepatitis-C by up to 70% - thus saving many lives and much public money.

Landcare prize – feeding native plants to livestock

A large team called The Future Farm Industries CRC Enrich Project Team as won the prize for sustainable agriculture by showing how animals grazing on native shrubs instead of introduced pastures can improve profitability for the farmer and reduce both greenhouse emissions and erosion.

School children get in on the act too

Everyone knows I am a sucker for mentoring young people. I love the 'Sleek Geeks' prizes that are provided by the University of Sydney; one for secondary students and one for primary students, each for a short video explaining an area of science. This year, the prizes were for films entitled "The Spectacular Spider" from a student at Casino High School, NSW and "What is Friction?" from a group of year 6 students from Beauty Point Public School, NSW.

The Ig Nobel prizes

It is rumoured that these are named after Alfred Nobel's fictitious brother, Iggy. This is not true, of course, it is part of the word-play inherent in the communications of the association called Improbable Research. http://www.improbable.com/about/ The winners from 2013 and years past can be found at http://www.improbable.com/ig/winners/

Below are my particular favourites from this year.

Psychology prize: people who think they are drunk think they are attractive

A group of French scientists videotaped people who had consumed alcohol, as well as those who had not, and as a proper scientific control, they also included a group who thought they had consumed alcohol but had not (a placebo). They showed that both groups who had 'thought' they had drunk alcohol also gave themselves more positive self-evaluations for attractiveness, than those who 'knew' that they had had none.

As an added comment, the people looking at the videotapes commented that the self-evaluation had no correlation with the actual performance, for any group.

Archaeology Prize – practical demonstration of digestion

Two researchers from the USA won this prize "for parboiling a dead shrew, and then swallowing the shrew without chewing, and then carefully examining everything excreted during subsequent days â€" all so they could see which bones would dissolve inside the human digestive system, and which bones would not".

The Australian connection – dung beetles navigate using the Milky Way

Dung beetles are very important in the Australian landscape – different species bury the dung of different animals and help control the bush-fly population. Research into their habits has been going on for many years.

At first, I thought this study was not at all funny – a group of researchers connected to Australian universities but now working in various places overseas, have won the combined Biology and Astronomy prize for working out that these little creatures use the Milky Way to navigate. Then I read that the humour came from their methodology; they had made little black caps for some of the dung beetles to wear, so they couldn't see the stars. The control group was left without caps; and the navigation competence of each group was compared.

So now you know that scientists have a sense of humour although it does not impinge on the seriousness of their research. So remember to think after you have laughed until you have cried! Scientists find that part of their fun is thinking about the world in a different way.

Perhaps this is what is meant by Proverbs 19 verse 8 (NIV) "He who gets wisdom loves his own soul; he who cherishes understanding prospers."

STOP PRESS – one more award to 'bionic ear' inventor.

After finishing this piece, I read of the top US science prize, the Lasker DeBakey, being awarded to Professor Emeritus Graeme Clark and collaborators for the development of the cochlear implant (otherwise known as the 'bionic ear'). The very first of these was implanted in 1978, and since then modern electronics has enabled the quality of the speech heard by the recipient to be greatly improved. Now there are 320,000 people worldwide who have these devices. (theconversation.com)

Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children.

Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-tronson.html

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