Sunday, October 26, 2008

Some of my best friends are fruit flies

Fruit flies went mainstream this week, when a vice-presidential candidate scorned their study as taking research dollars away from work that helps people. That was a foolish claim, almost instantly debunked – fruit flies have improved the human condition enormously in the last century.

So fruit flies are indisputably cool. But this wasn’t the first time politicians have called out supposedly goofy research conducted by obviously egg-headed scientists as a grievous waste of taxpayers’s money, and it assuredly won’t be the last. I think we need to do a better job teaching students to look beyond the obvious. Most biology classes describe how science is done (observation, hypothesis, testing) and they trumpet a handful of scientific breakthroughs (say the discovery of penicillin, or the description of the DNA double helix). But do we talk enough about the long and winding road from the one to the other?

I think it would be useful to have students research research. Get them to poke at work that seems frivolous and see if they can imagine what bigger things it might lead to, or if it’s really as dumb as it sounds. And have them track award-winning research back to its humble beginnings, and wonder if it would have seemed as worthwhile then as it does now. I can suggest two good places to start, far apart in prestige but perhaps not so distant in teaching value.

The Nobel Prizes are awarded for outstanding achievement, to people who “have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” The scientific awards are generally given only after the passage of time has shown the importance and rigor of the original research. The 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to scientists who discovered the viruses that cause cervical cancer and AIDS. The Nobel website has all there is to know about the awards – descriptions of winning research and interviews with the laureates, videos, educational games, news articles, and links.

At the other end of the spectrum are the Ig Noble Prizes, which “honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative -- and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology.” This year’s winners include researchers who determined that the fleas on dogs jump higher than the fleas on cats, and an award split between scientists who proved that Coca-Cola is an effective spermicide and others who showed that it is not. The Ig Nobel Awards fall under the umbrella of the Annals of Improbable Research. Their website too contains descriptions of the winning research, videos, games, and other commentary.

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