Awards Honor Serendipity and Humor in Science

Sep 16, 2013

The Golden Goose Awards honor federally-funded research that has yielded substantial societal benefits.
The Golden Goose Awards honor federally-funded research that has yielded substantial societal benefits.

Science doesn't always proceed neatly from A to B to C. Basic research is guided by curiosity and involves accidents and serendipity, as well as thought, planning, and hard work.

When it all comes out perfectly, the results can be brilliant.

Ig Nobel Prizes

Have you ever wondered how much you'd have to reduce gravity to be able to walk on water? Whether cows are more likely to stand up the longer they've been lying down? How dung beetles find their way home (wherever that is)?

Okay, probably not. But some scientists did, and by following their curiosity, they landed themselves on the list of winners of the 2013 Ig Nobel Prizes.

But don't take my word for it. See for yourself:

The Ig Nobel Prizes - a clear take-off of the vaunted Nobel Prizes - are the brainchild of mathematician-turned-author Marc Abrahams. Bestowed by actual Nobel Laureates, the prizes are intended to be a lighthearted way to call attention to how science works and why it's important. The criteria for winning an Ig Nobel are simple: the research has to make you laugh, then make you think.

The Golden Goose Awards

Of course, not everyone appreciates the esoteric nature of basic (sometimes called pure, or curiosity-driven) research. You may recall Sarah Palin's now notorious derogatory comments about fruit fly research during the 2008 presidential election. Or the countless Golden Fleece Awards handed out to researchers by Senator William Proxmire in his campaign against wasteful federal spending.

The Golden Goose Awards, started just last year, were first envisioned by Congressman Jim Cooper of Tennessee as a means to educate lawmakers and the public about the importance of sometimes odd-sounding basic research. The awards go to federally-funded research that might have qualified for an Ig Nobel at the time it was conducted, but which has yielded substantial economic, medical or social benefits.

This year's winners are credited with discovering the enzyme now used to replicate and sequence DNA (the basis of the biotech revolution), and creating the algorithm used to match potential kidney donors with non-family members in need of a kidney. Of course, at the time, they thought they were studying the microbial ecology of Yellowstone National Park, and conducting a theoretical exercise in creating stable marriages, respectively. Who'd have thought?