Science can be serious and still make you smile, as David Whetstone discovers.
A FEW years ago Dr Claire Rind treated an audience of locusts to a private screening of the most exciting bits of Star Wars.
She says she loves the movie.
There is no knowing if the locusts enjoyed it. They might have preferred something by Ingmar Bergman but films by the cerebral Swede lack the quality which earned the locusts their viewing: scenes where fast-moving projectiles hurtle towards the audience.
Dr Rind, Reader in Invertebrate Neurobiology at Newcastle University, has spent years exploring why locusts and other swarming creatures don’t crash. Locusts, she will tell you, have collision-sensitive neurones. This means that in response to a “looming stimulus” – which is to say a predator approaching at speed – the creatures perform a last second ducking and diving manoeuvre.
By using a fast approaching Darth Vader as the “looming stimulus”, and monitoring the response of her (let’s be honest) captive audience with sensors resembling acupuncture needles, she was able to add greatly to her knowledge of the locust’s collision-avoiding capabilities. Even if, in this instance, the locusts couldn’t actually duck – or, in fact, blink. Locusts can’t, you see.
There is no doubt that Dr Rind, a New Zealander who has worked in Newcastle for 20 years, enjoys her work. She even sees the funny side of it. On a trip to Disneyland she encountered a ride involving the very scene in Star Wars that she had inflicted on her audience.
With a laugh and a wince, she says: “It gave me some idea of what they must have felt like.”
When she received a phone call asking if she would be prepared to receive an Ig Nobel Prize for her pioneering locust/Star Wars research, she confesses she had to think about it.
Ig Nobel is a play on the famous Nobel Prizes and on the word “ignoble” which means dishonourable. You can understand her concerns.
“I talked to some colleagues and they ensured me we weren’t going to be objects of ridicule and that it had a serious side to it – but not before the good old laugh,” she says.
The “we” is a reference to collaborator Dr Peter Simmons, Reader in Neurobiology and Behaviour at the university, who is also her husband.
The Ig Nobel Prizes were set up in 1991 by writer Marc Abrahams. “Pioneering achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think” is the Ig Nobel selling point. Dr Rind, who sees it as part of her duty to talk about her research, agreed to accept her prize at the 15th Ig Nobel Prize ceremony in 2005.
She says it took place in a wonderful old lecture theatre at Harvard University in the United States. Her fellow recipients came from all over the world and their projects were all documented in respected scientific journals.
By this time it had dawned on her that there was indeed a serious side to this. People in the audience threw paper planes, as is the custom, but the awards were all presented by real Nobel Prize winners and the audience was large and learned.
With the Ig Nobel Prizes named after the Nobel Prizes, Dr Rind received the Ig Nobel Peace Prize. A rather tacky looking blue plastic trophy, it sits on her desk to this day.
Dr Rind got to lecture about her locust/Star Wars research and it seems media interest has never let up. A programme about her is to be the first in a 26-part US TV series called Weird Connections.
The research has progressed. Dr Rind has been part of a European consortium involving the Volvo Car Corporation and university departments in Spain and Hungary.
On the Newcastle University website, she writes: “We are designing collision sensors based on the locust visual system for use on cars. Collision threat detection and avoidance defines a major research and development challenge for the automotive industry.”
That’s the very serious side of research that arose from simple curiosity and “an interest in how animals can use their senses for moving around in the world”.
Like many other Ig Nobel Prize winners, Dr Rind and Dr Simmons could help to change the world as we know it – perhaps even make it a safer place. They are in the line-up for the 2008 Ig Nobel Tour which comes to the Centre for Life in Newcastle tomorrow at 6pm as part of National Science & Engineering Week.
Also on the bill are: Kees Moeliker who will discuss the possible imminent extinction of the pubic louse; Jim Gundlach who co-authored a study called The Effect of Country Music on Suicide; Rob Ives, founder of the company which designed the Flying Spaghetti Monster; and Brian Witcombe and Dan Meyer, co-authors of a medical report called Sword Swallowing and Its Side Effects.
For tickets, tel. (0191) 243-8210 or email firstname.lastname@example.org