"Excellence, a dumbass ambition", pavement art near Ecole Normale Supérieure, Latin Quarter 

April 21st, 2013, 12pm

The series of yellow stencils appeared overnight on the footpath, one every two feet, linking two reseach institutes. The message seemed more like a jaded insider’s reflexion than an oxymoron.

My first thought was of two bird loving University Professors who had waged a war of words, schoolyard style, trying to knock the other off his perch. Prof 1 drew the first blood, claiming he had identified a seldom observed penguin as a new species. Prof 2 had described the very same animal yonks ago. When the annals of polar birdology published Prof 1’s article, his colleague poured scorn on the publication for not consulting THE expert in the matter first.

Nobody recalls when the expression ‘patronizing git’ was heard and who it was aimed at. However, the battlefield moved to the columns of a monthly dedicated to endangered species. Our most junior readers may think of ‘Letters to the Editor’ as a kind of pre-historic version of a ‘moderated blog’. That’s quite true, except that no moderation was enforced here; mameless pen warriors – i.e. students – supported their heroes, spitting venom in the name of science. Confusion reached a climax, prompting a bigwig to enter the arena. Both parties were summoned to go back to the field - a handful of remote glacial islands - and collect fresh data under the supervision of an independent panel.

A few dozen birds had the privilege of being measured, weighed and photographed at sea and on the land. Those coming back to their nest to feed their young were intercepted and forced to regurgitate the contents of their stomach; chicks would have to wait. Others gave blood and organs deemed vital for the reputation of bird-science and biometric signature. No fingerprints were taken. A happy few were released - i.e. dispatched overboard – on the ground that they carried diseases or showed characteristics making them unsuitable for proper academic study.

After three weeks of hard labour in the Southern Ocean, everybody returned to civilized life. Neither one clan nor the other had the nerve to hit at each other any more; irrefutable arguments seemed to have flushed out at sea.

For many years, surviving birds lived in the fear of the Profs and their disciples returning. What saved them has little to do with wisdom or the designation of a winner. Instead of being granted the right to name the bird after their own patronym, both Profs had got a bad name for the cost of the operation.

Looking at that piece of pavement art, I sill wonder what its author had in mind; was he targeting excellence as such or the egotic behaviour induced by the ambition to perch on the highest branch?

The IgNobel prize is attributed to research that makes people laugh and then think. No laughing matter here, and no excellence.

Cassie and Natália said thanks.

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Tom Frozart

PhD in Information science, coaching engineers in hi flying industries worldwide. Former head of scientific team in Antarctica. Author of short stories, Skive Magazine (Sydney)

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