Research by Mucking About

I am a long standing fan of the Ig Nobel awards. The Ig Nobel awards are an initiative by the magazine Air (Annals of Improbable Research) and are handed out on a yearly basis – often by real Nobel Prize winners – to people whose research “makes people laugh and then think” (although its motto used to be to “honor people whose achievements cannot or should not be reproduced” – but I guess the organisers had to first experience the “then think” bit themselves).

With a few exceptions they are handed out for real research, done by academics, and published in scientific journals. Here are some of my old time favourites:

  • BIOLOGY 2002, Bubier, Pexton, Bowers, and Deeming.“Courtship behaviour of ostriches towards humans under farming conditions in Britain” British Poultry Science 39(4)
  • INTERDISCIPLINARY RESEARCH 2002. Karl Kruszelnicki (University of Sydney). “for performing a comprehensive survey of human belly button lint – who gets it, when, what color, and how much
  • MATHEMATICS 2002. Sreekumar and Nirmalan (Kerala Agricultural University). “Estimation of the total surface area in Indian Elephants” Veterinary Research Communications 14(1)
  • TECHNOLOGY 2001, Jointly to Keogh (Hawthorn), for patenting the wheel (in 2001), and the Australian Patent Office for granting him the patent.
  • PEACE 2000, the British Royal Navy, for ordering its sailors to stop using live cannon shells, and to instead just shout “Bang!”
  • LITERATURE 1998, Dr. Mara Sidoli (Washington) for the report “farting as a defence against unspeakable dread”. Journal of analytical psychology 41(2)

To the best of my knowledge, there is (only) one individual who has not only won an Ig Nobel Award, but also a Nobel Prize. That person is Andre Geim. Geim – who is now at the University of Manchester – for long held the habit of dedicating a fairly substantial proportion of his time to just mucking about in his lab, trying to do “cool stuff”. In one of such sessions, together with his doctoral student Konstantin Novoselov, he used a piece of ordinary sticky tape (which allegedly they found in a bin) to peel off a very thin layer of graphite, taken from a pencil. They managed to make the layer of carbon one atom thick, inventing the material “graphene”.

In another session, together with Michael Berry from the University of Bristol, he experimented with the force of magnetism. Using a magnetized metal slab and a coil of wire in which a current is flowing as an electromagnet, they tried to make a magnetic force that exactly balanced gravity, to try and make various objects “float”. Eventually, they settled on a frog – which, like humans, mostly consists of water – and indeed managed to make it levitate.

The one project got Geim the Ig Nobel; the other one got him the Nobel Prize.

“Mucking about” was the foundation of these achievements. The vast majority of these experiments doesn’t go anywhere; some of them lead to an Ig Nobel and makes people laugh; others result in a Nobel Prize. Many of man’s great discoveries – in technology, medicine or art – have been achieved by mucking about. And many great companies were founded by mucking about, in a garage (Apple), a dorm room (Facebook), or a kitchen and a room above a bar (Xerox).

Unfortunately, in strategy research we don’t muck about much. In fact, people are actively discouraged from doing so. During pretty much any doctoral consortium, junior faculty meeting, or annual faculty review, a young academic in the field of Strategic Management is told – with ample insistence – to focus, figure out in what subfield he or she wants to be known, “who the five people are that are going to read your paper” (heard this one in a doctoral consortium myself), and “who your letter writers are going to be for tenure” (heard this one in countless meetings). The field of Strategy – or any other field within a business school for that matter – has no time and tolerance for mucking about. Disdain and a weary shaking of the head are the fates of those who try, and step off the proven path in an attempt to do something original with uncertain outcome: “he is never going to make tenure, that’s for sure”.

And perhaps that is also why we don’t have any Nobel Prizes.


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