Turvey Accepts Research Award With Good Humor
Psychology professor Michael Turvey is generally a serious guy. During his 37-year tenure at UConn, he has been involved in intense, occasionally ground-breaking research, and he regularly ranks as one of the University's best instructors. But for the past few weeks, Turvey has been downright giddy.
Thursday night, Turvey and nine other researchers from across the globe were honored with what at first glance seems to be a relatively ignominious prize — one of the '14th First Annual Ig Nobel Awards.' These awards celebrate research that first makes you laugh, then makes you think.
"I think it's delightful," Turvey said last week, two days before the award ceremony at Harvard University's Sanders Theatre. "It's very interesting recognition."
Turvey, a member of UConn's Center for the Ecological Study of Perception and Action, and co-author Ramesh Balasubramaniam were awarded this year's physics prize for their study of the dynamics of hula-hooping. Balasubramaniam is a former graduate student of Turvey's, whose doctoral dissertation was the basis of the research that led to Thursday's acclaim.
The results of their study, "Coordination Modes in the Multi-Segmental Dynamics of Hula-Hooping," were published in the March issue of the journal Biological Cybernetics.
For their efforts, Turvey and Balasubramaniam, now a professor of movement science at the University of Ottawa, received a handmade, empty cereal box on a pedestal, and a certificate of award, signed by four real Nobel winners. Before presenting the trophy, the Nobel Prize-winners gave the audience a glimpse of the dynamics of four middle-aged to elderly people shaking, jiggling, and twisting hula-hoops. Their efforts were preceded by a 15-second demonstration by an expert hula-hooper.
Despite the satire and self-deprecation necessarily involved in winning one of the Ig Nobels — which creator and organizer Marc Abrahams says are greatly sought-after by scientists, universities , and even governments — the research conducted by Turvey and Balasubramaniam that earned them the award is serious stuff.
Turvey says the body is constructed as a horizontal system, and how it can become vertical — and balance itself — has mystified scientists. Add the complexities of how the body walks and moves, and how it organizes dozens of neurons, receptors, muscles, and joints so it can keep a hula-hoop parallel to the ground, and it becomes a remarkable puzzle.
"Standing upright is much more complicated science than learning why some people can master chess," says Turvey. "It took nature most of evolution to build an upright system. From then on, other things — speech, drawing — came quickly. The movements of the body are some of nature's most remarkable achievements."
People with Parkinson's or Huntington's disease, he says, have somehow lost the ability to organize all those various parts, and so lose the stability needed to stand easily and walk fluently. The hula-hoop study brings into focus some of the physical laws — including Newton's Law and those of the newer physics of self-organiz ing systems — that play a role in this function.
When standing upright or hula-hooping, Turvey says, "all those muscles have to elegantly adjust. This involves immense calculations, but I think nature solves those calculations through laws. Our challenge is finding out what those laws are."
Abrahams says the awards are not meant to mock or demean scientific research or researchers. It's just that some of the tens of thousands of research studies conducted worldwide every year sound humorous, he says.
"Some years ago, I was the editor of a science magazine, and I would receive hundreds of pitches from scientists who wanted their papers published," Abrahams says. "Some
of their work just sounded so funny, that it made you laugh. And certainly, some of the research was very good. So I thought I'd give them a chance to win something."
From that humble beginning, the Ig Nobels have become a sought-after award, with the winners selected from more than 5,000 entries, a packed auditorium every year, and international media attention. Not one but two Japanese television stations were on hand at the Sanders Theatre to capture Thursday's ceremony, and Abrahams says they scheduled the
trip even before they knew that the 2004 Ig Nobel Peace Prize would be awarded to the man who invented karaoke.
Before accepting his award, the inventor of karaoke was serenaded by the four Nobel Prize winners and the other nine Ig Nobel Prize winners with a karaoke version of Frankie Valli's hit song "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," with the line, "You're just too good to be true.."
Besides the instant media attention, Abrahams annually takes some of the winners on an international road show, where they can present their research. Next week, Turvey's co-author, Balasubraman iam, will discuss the hula-hoop research at the World Congress of Science Journalists in Montreal.
And Turvey hopes for more.
"I would be delighted if people picked up this paper [the published study on the dynamics of hula hooping] and saw how remarkable the body really is," he says. "Learning how humans stand upright is very high on scientists' agenda right now, and if we can contribute to that effort through our study, it would be wonderful."