Sunday, October 02, 2016

The Goat Life

Ladies and gentleman, let’s have a big round of applause for Thomas Thwaites.


OK, so he’s not exactly a household name but he’s become somewhat of a celebrity in the scientific community.  In fact, he was just awarded the not-so prestigious Ig Noble prize, given annually for silly science.

Thwaites claim to fame is that he created custom prosthetics so he could spend three days grazing on the side of a Swiss mountain while living as a goat.

His conclusion: Being a goat is harder than it looks. Thwaites said his experiment tested him in ways he hadn’t expected it to and forced him to confront both his own humanity and the elemental aspects of goat-ness.

 “I was sort of shocked at how bad a goat I was,” he says, “and I was really trying.”

It was not all herding and head butting, however.  He developed a strong bond with one animal in particular - a "goat buddy."

Thwaites, who once wrote a book on making a toaster from scratch, shared the prize with Charles Foster, who pretended to be a badger, a deer, an otter, a fox, and a bird for his book “Being a Beast.”

For the uninitiated, the Ig Nobel awards are presented each year at Harvard University by the Annals of Improbable Research magazine.

With tongue firmly in cheek, the Ig Noble folks honor scientific articles that have some humorous or unexpected aspect, such as the two scientists who discovered that the word "huh?" (or its equivalent) seems to exist in every human language — and for not being completely sure why.

Or the group of researchers who are trying to understand what happens in the brains of people who see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast.

Or the scientists who are investigating whether it is mentally hazardous for a human being to own a cat.

Or the group that investigated whether suicide rates are linked to the amount of country music played on the radio (they are).

Or the woman from MIT who invented an alarm clock that runs away and hides, repeatedly, thus ensuring that people do get out of bed, and thus theoretically adding many productive hours to the workday.

The awards know no bounds. The prize for mathematics was once awarded to the Southern Baptist Church of Alabama for their county-by-county estimate of how many Alabama citizens will go to hell if they don't repent.

Also honored were researchers at the Air Force’s Wright Laboratory, Dayton, Ohio, for instigating development on a chemical weapon -- the so-called "gay bomb" -- that will make enemy soldiers become sexually irresistible to each other.

Other 2016 winners (and my reactions):

Chemistry: Volkswagen took home the award for solving the problem of excessive automobile emissions by automatically producing fewer emissions when cars are tested. (Very clever but it cost VW $15 billion in fines. Das Dummkopfs).

Psychology: A group of psychologists interviewed thousands of liars about their lying habits. Their findings suggested young adults are the best liars and that people lie the most in their teenage years. (How did they know the study participants weren’t lying? They didn’t.)

Literature:  Fredrik Sjöberg was awarded for his three-volume autobiographical work about the pleasures of collecting flies that are dead, and flies that are not yet dead. (Three volumes? And I have trouble writing this column).

Perception:  This prize recognized researchers who studied how people perceive distances when they bend over and look between their legs. (Couldn’t they just interview the center on a football team?)

Medicine: Researchers discovered people can relieve an itch in the right arm by scratching the left, but only after tricking their brain. Researchers injected histamine dihydrochloride into volunteers' right arms. Using mirrors and video feeds, researchers made it appear volunteers were scratching their right arm when they were really scratching their left. (Thus constructing an experiment from scratch).

Reproduction:  Researchers published a study that found polyester underwear significantly reduced male rats' sexual success rates. (Putting polyester underwear on any living thing would seriously hurt their game).

So what are we to make of all this?

The Ig Noble folks will tell you that “our goal is to make people laugh, then make them think. We also hope to spur people’s curiosity, and to raise the question: How do you decide what’s important and what’s not, and what’s real and what’s not — in science and everywhere else?”

But we all know that nerds just want to have fun.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com.

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