On September 12th, a gala event was held in Sanders Theatre, Harvard University. A crowd of spectators celebrated scientists getting awarded for their winning research / discovery by Nobel Laureates. Everyone was amused. There were giggles and guffaws.
Thermal asymmetry in human scrotum
Some 2019 winners from this event:
Physics award for the study on how, and why, Wombats make cubed poo
Peace award for the assessment of the pleasurability of scratching an itch
Economics award for the research on which country’s paper currency best transmits bacteria
Engineering award for the invention of a diaper changing machine for babies. Voila!
There were a few other awards too, including one for measuring scrotal temperature asymmetry in naked and clothed postmen in France. The paper titled Thermal Asymmetry of Human Scrotum is free to read for those interested.
Welcome to the Ignoble prizes. Before you dismiss it completely, note that: 1) These are actual scientists 2) The research papers are perfectly valid and have been published and use scientific methods and 3) Awards are handed over by actual Nobel Laureates.
In the words of Amanda Palmer,
“It’s like the weirdest f-ing thing that you’ll ever go to… it’s a collection of, like, actual Nobel Prize winners giving away prizes to real scientists for doing f’d-up things… it’s awesome”.
What’s the point of this, you may be thinking. If you are the outraging type, you may even be asking: “Should actual scientists be wasting time doing silly things when the world is going to shit?”
The answer is yes. The Ignoble prizes are supposed to make you laugh, then think.
If silly headlines can capture the interest of the world, then so be it. Behold, science. The thing that got us to where we are - out of disease, poverty, and from still running in the plains with wild buffaloes. We should be building temples and listening to every word coming from the mouth of scientists, but instead we kneel before celebrities and Godmen who claim to be the panacea for our troubles.
Need more silly in regular life
We really need more farce in regular life. Taking oneself too seriously should be a crime.
For instance, take the archetype for zealous preaching - the tech and startup bros. Everyone’s Plato, dispensing wisdom in tweets on how to live a purpose-filled life. Ostensibly, the words ‘entrepreneur’ or ‘investor’ in your bio gives you the blueprint to distilling the essence of life, universe and everything.
Simple human tasks are now calibrated madness. Want a productive day? Then wake up at 5 AM on the dot, drink Kale smoothie infused with a magic nootropics, do high intensity training and meditate for 30 minutes to clear your ‘mind inbox’. Want to sleep better? Listen to Headspace, eat yogurt and find an ergonomic bed that shape-shifts to accommodate your aura. Do a digital detox and Vipaasana once a quarter to find your inner self.
Technology’s most destructive vandalism has been to give a bullhorn to every person on the planet. It’s made us so earnest and deliberate in our middling pursuits that we think we’re evolved. We are now in a world of infinite cults. Following are some examples:
Dieting rules and models🥑
Fitness plans and recommendations 💪
Yoga and meditation gurus 🧘♂️
Entrepreneurship as a virtuous social task🧔
Modi is god 🐮
Modi is the devil💥
And a million more….
And because people take their cults so seriously, they get viciously angry at anyone who makes fun or speaks against it. Outrages erupt like floods during Indian Monsoon.
All hail Lord Bezos!
We have a team stand-up every Monday in Amazon. Last week, the soaring leader of my team (he is 6’1’’ is all I am saying) decided that it was time to galvanize the bunch of sober performers into something of a cult. He painted the vision of our future next year, calling out the 5x growth projected and why we will be beating our competitors and be one of the largest teams within Amazon. All the while, he was revving up excitement in the numbers he was quoting - “this is a unique chance to be part of such a high growth!”
I was struggling to contain smiling. I struggle to think of our ability to sell 5x more of potato or a moisturizer a measure of great vision. Ultimately, retail and e-commerce is just propagating consumption like a virtue to a level that’s not sustainable. We buy more phones, more TVs and more deodorants. Nothing to thrust out your chest about.
Corporations think of themselves as the new religion. The preachers are well paid and they know how to project a sense of importance to the inane things they do. Their incentives are aligned to project this sense of mission that pushes a large segment of relatively underpaid workers to push the engine further along. And we’ve all fallen for it.
Look at how proudly people flaunt their corporate brand or fight for it (Apple vs Android). Jeff Bezos is pretty much a cult leader for the Am-bots. Their words are hung on to with reverence and repeated in the halls.
But ultimately, these corporations mostly generate profits for shareholders and self fuel their own success. They are (mostly) greedy wealth-creation machines that will optimize all costs and pass on as much cost to the society as possible ( use up social infrastructure, no taxes and pollute and consume resources). Sure, they provide jobs and are a necessary component of the free market model that has fueled our collective creation of things.
But they surely don’t deserve the serious reverence with which we treat them. They need to be mocked and treated with silliness rather than revere them in our mind temples.
Math did not help Einstein
In MP, a marriage ceremony was conducted between two frogs. The reason: this would result in rains. Later, there were rains. Too much of it, in fact, that the perpetrators of the ceremony decided they had to divorce a few of the frog couples.
If you ask me, that’s just poor system thinking. Any good product manager would have first asked the question “how much rain can we spawn by marrying off one frog couple” and then proceeded to work backwards from total rain needed to estimate the number of frog marriages needed. Instead, they went off all willy-nilly and married off frogs. Now Udupi is full of unhappy frog couples croaking at each other.
But Frog marriages may just be the stimulant our GDP needs. India’s minister for the monies, Nirmala Sitharaman, having scoured through multiple reports on the state of our economy, arrived at the root cause of all problems - Millenials.
Honestly, I’d have to take her side. We now have people calling themselves minimalists, pursuing so-called ‘passion’ (instead of doing a solid job), taking Uber instead of driving their own car and renting and living together instead of buying a great 2 Bhk apartment (with modern amenities just 10 kms from city center). Frankly, this kind of attitude hurts national interest. The e-cigarette ban is just the beginning, I tell you.
Things are so silly right now that Subramanian Swamy briefly made sense. To get to a 5 trillion rupee economy by 2025, he said, you need to grow at more than 10%. Before you could say, “that makes sense” Piyush Goyal jumped into the fray to dispel some myth about math and numbers in what has got to be the statement of Modi Raj 2.0.
Don’t get into those Maths; Maths never helped Einstein discover gravity
We are increasingly averse to math and science as it doesn’t quite go with our feelings. Instead we go: “Shut up, you western-influenced, anti-national, liberal swine. Our ancestors figured out everything including interplanetary flights. So, go and shove your science up your….”
The good thing that came out of all this was that for a brief moment, Newton and Einstein trended in India. Perhaps in his own way, our honorable minister was doing what Ignoble prizes were trying to do - make people laugh and then think about science.
And talking of science, Trump decided that he wanted to get rid of all energy efficient lighting in the White House because it makes him look orange.
So, as I always say with these things, it all could be worse.