Thursday, October 27, 2016

Spoofing Science Before the Ig Nobel Prize

Review: Science, Sex, and Sacred Cows, from Worm-Runner's Digest, James V. McConnell, Editor


The Ig Nobel Prizes, parodies of the Nobel Prizes, can be veiled criticism or satire, but also point out that even absurd-sounding research can yield useful knowledge.

For example, in the early days of exploration into DNA and RNA, the experimental “tool” of choice was the lowly flatworm, Dughesia tigrina. Hardy specimens were easy to obtain, easy to analyze (behaving like organic NOT gates), and capable of regenerating from axial or longitudinal cuts. Even partial cuts would stimulate regeneration, giving rise to worms with two, three, even ten heads.

The excitement in using flatworms was that they could be “taught” to run a maze, then shown (by Digest editor Dr. James V. McConnell in a disputed experiment) to transmit their knowledge to untrained planaria who consumed their chopped-up bodies. Something in the trained worms acted as a knowledge store. This stuff, named “Memory RNA” by its discoverer, prompted hopes of a “Ph.D. pill” in the future.

The maze-running of such animals to create a trained food-source for investigation was so widespread, it gave rise to the quasi-satiric Worm-Runner’s Digest, published at first as humorous entries in the staid Journal of Biological Psychology. When the satirical pieces began to diminish the reputation of his peer-reviewed items, Digest editor James V. McConnell first printed the humor pieces upside down at the end of each volume, then separated the two entirely.

Freed from proximity to the now-waning furor over college-bound planaria, Digest articles eventually covered a multitude of topics, from archaeology to zoophyly. This particular collection is “more than 50 percent planaria by volume.” I hope we can all learn something from its consumption.

From the initial Questions and answers with Grant Swinger (in which the operations of the “Center for Absorption of Federal Funds” are described) to the final Neil Illusions (showing the panicked urge for new optical illusions to which the researcher’s name might be appended), these are iconoclastic articles. Their primary aim is to amuse, but the secondary purpose is to let hot air out of the pompous image of the scientist.

So we have a Handbook of common laboratory diseases, including 'Apparatophilia' and 'Disbursitis'. The professional patient illustrates the arrogance and impatience of some researchers by casting these qualities onto their human subjects. And F.E. Warburton’s classic, The lab coat as status symbol is reproduced here.

Some pieces require a faint familiarity with other classics of literature and science. A singluar case of extreme electrolyte balance associated with folie a deux uses the style of a clinical report to describe why Lot’s wife became a pillar of salt. The fall of the house of Oozer is a wonderful retelling of the Poe story (complete with an inset spoof of The Raven) with flatworms as the main characters. And in three ends to the tale of The blind men and the elephant, we get a capsule description of the errors that rise from all three modes of resolving committee disputes over scientific fact.

I suspect only worm-runners would find sufficient humor in the radio play by 'Tollan Dymas' titled, Under worm wood: a romp for wrigglers. Perhaps my own deficient knowledge of Dylan Thomas’ works was more to blame. But juxtaposed with this is a charming collection of doodle-quality sperm cartoons, showing, for example, the Ph.D. sperm with a tiny mortar-board and the Jester sperm with a minute belled cap.

Smorr Chen tells of a University of Chicago student’s encounter with the pervasive nature of a charming accent, and what happens when he encounters the antidote. How to teach a cow a damn good lesson details the way a new milker is taught which position to take in the milking barn. (Not for PETA or pet-cow proponents, by the way, although the methods described should be understood as outmoded and no longer in general use.)

There’s more here, most very funny. Like A Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown, this collection shows that, whatever else research writers may be, they are certainly not devoid of a sense of humor.