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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: NZ sadly trails behind in field of pointless research


Hopes that New Zealand will ever be able to compete in the cut-throat field of spectacularly pointless research are fading fast following the Government's announcement that a quarter of the courses on offer in our tertiary institutions will be axed by the middle of the year.

If we needed a reminder of what it takes to play in the big league, it was duly provided. The same day that Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce dropped his bombshell, researchers at the University of Trier in Germany revealed an astounding discovery: men are attracted to a wider range of women when feeling stressed out.

They divided 50 heterosexual male students into two groups: one group had to plunge an arm into icy water for three minutes, while the other lot dunked their arms in water heated to body temperature.

Then they all had to look at a series of images, a mixture of household objects and naked women, some of whose faces had been digitally altered to resemble either the individual being tested or one of the other volunteers. They also bombarded the students with random bursts of noise, because that's the sort of thing you do when conducting a pointless experiment.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking you can't possibly make definitive statements about human behaviour in the infinitely complex area of sexual attraction on the basis of such a contrived and dubious test.

You're also thinking that even if it did prove men under stress are attracted to a wider range of women, so bloody what?

And that, my friends, is why we're not scientists with big, fat, research grants, often courtesy of the taxpayer, which enable us to spend our working lives dreaming up wacky experiments which generate pointless knowledge. Indeed, it hardly qualifies as knowledge at all because we either knew it already thanks to that invaluable tool known as common sense, or don't want to know it because our brains are cluttered with too much useless information as it is.

Pointless research is a highly competitive field. There are thousands of researchers out there, many beavering away on projects which frankly aren't quite pointless enough, all dreaming of being the next Kees Moeliker.

It was Moeliker who alerted the world to the fact that mallard ducks - okay, one mallard - engaged in homosexual necrophilia. At least once.

Moeliker's methodology provides an insight into the dedication and opportunism needed to become a household name in cutting-edge pointless research. He was sitting in his office in Rotterdam when a mallard flew into the side of the building. He went to investigate and found the dead bird being given what research scientists call "a right royal seeing to" by another mallard drake. He observed; he took notes.

For his efforts Moeliker was awarded the 2003 Ig Nobel prize for biology. The Ig Nobel prizes are an institution organised by the scientific humour - apparently there is such a thing - magazine Annals of Improbable Research. The gongs are handed out at an annual ceremony at Harvard University by a committee including genuine Nobel laureates.

A sample of recent winners shows just how high the bar is set, and suggests that unless the Government pulls its head out of the sand and gets serious about funding tertiary education, pointless research will remain yet another area of endeavour in which our best efforts attract, at best, a shrug from the international community.

Ig Nobel prizes have been awarded for research that:

* Demonstrated that kitchen refuse can be reduced by more than 90 per cent in mass by using bacteria extracted from the faeces of giant pandas.
* Proved that fleas which live on dogs jump higher than fleas living on cats.
* Suggested hamsters recover from jetlag more quickly when given Viagra.
* Quantified the amount of force needed to drag sheep over various rough surfaces.
* Generated a comprehensive review of objects which have had to be removed from the human rectum. The usual suspects aside, the list includes a snuffbox, a jeweller's saw, and a frozen pig's tail.
* Demonstrated why woodpeckers don't get headaches.
* Said herring communicate by farting.
* Facilitated the invention of a bra that can be converted into a pair of gas masks.
* Showed that chickens prefer beautiful human beings.
* Explored the viability of a "gay bomb" which would cause enemy troops to become sexually attracted to each other.
* Recorded progress in an experiment begun in 1927 in which a glob of congealed black tar pitch seeps through a funnel at the rate of one drop every nine years. Approximately.

- NZ Herald

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