The newest award given to George Wolford of Dartmouth’s psychology department somehow manages to stand out in the long list of other professors’ impressive distinctions. On September 20th, Wolford traveled to Harvard University to receive an “Ig Nobel Prize,” handed to him by a group of Nobel Laureates. This light-hearted prize praises scientists who have made bold and humorous research discoveries, honoring “achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think,” according to its website.
Scientists flocked to Harvard, some from as far away as Sweden and Japan, to receive their plastic trophies and revel in the bizarre entertainment (including sword swallowing) offered in the ceremony, which made front-page news in South Korea.
“It’s like a circus for science geeks,” Wolford said.
Wolford, along with former Dartmouth researchers Craig Bennett, Abigail Baird and Michael Miller, received the prize for their paper on the discovery of brain activity in a dead salmon. The paper got its start with an accidental discovery during Bennett’s graduate work at Dartmouth under Baird. One day, to practice the use of the fMRI, Bennett placed a dead salmon in the scanner. He and his team ran the experiment as they would with a real subject: reading the fish instructions, waiting to see if it pushed a button, asking if it needed a rest during the testing. This amusing session was quickly forgotten and the results were left unexamined.
Three years later at Dartmouth, Wolford was preparing for his annual lecture on how to correct testing to avoid false positives, and Craig suggested that he examine the previously forgotten results from the dead salmon tests. In doing so, the pair discovered signs of activity in the fish brain, which only disappeared after performing the proper statistical corrections.Courtesy of Craig Bennet, et al.
Wolford and his colleagues decided to publish the paper, both as an amusing project and to warn researchers of the perils of performing statistics improperly. After 25,000 downloads of the paper and efforts of like-minded researchers, there was a significant drop in the number of improper corrections performed by researchers.
“I think we shamed people into being more careful,” Wolford said.
The paper was somehow nominated for the “Igs,” winning the category of neuroscience and beating out 9,000 other nominations. Other winners (view here) included the US government general accounting office in the literature category, for its scintillating report about reports about reports (no one from the office came to receive the prize), and a group of physicists who published a paper explaining why ponytails move left and right while people jog, since the rest of the body moves up and down.
The whole ceremony can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5loKKOySDpw
Tags: abigail baird, craig bennet, Emma Moley, michael miller, salmon, wolford