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What's So Special About Oscar Winners?

oscarsColin Firth and Natalie Portman sort of have a lot in common. For one thing, they are both actors. In fact, they are both Oscar-winning actors. They are both presenting awards at the 84th Annual Academy Awards ceremony this weekend. And...they both are authors of scientific papers?

It's true. Just when you thought they couldn't get any cooler, these actors turn out to be interested in science too.

Colin Firth's involvement with research started when he was a guest editor for a BBC radio program a couple years ago. On the show, he commissioned a researcher to compare the brains of a liberal and a conservative politician with MRI. When the test was replicated with more subjects, the researchers saw correlations between a subject's political affiliation and the amount of grey matter in certain areas of the brain.

Smarty pants Natalie Portman got involved with neuroscience research as an undergraduate at Harvard. She helped with a project on new brain-imaging technology that was used to study object permanence in babies. Infants who have object permanence understand that when a toy is hidden under a blanket it doesn't cease to exist.

While Firth and Portman's Academy Awards have little to do with their own neuroscience exploits, the awards could qualify the actors to be subjects of scientific study, themselves. Apparently the fame and fortune that comes with an Academy Award changes an actor's life so drastically that scientists have found it important to study them. Either that or we common folk are interested in pretty much anything having to do with stardom.

One such study showed that male Oscar-winners have more kids. The men each produced a whopping average of four children, compared to the national American average of 1.2. The researcher came up with three possible explanations of this trend: 1) The winners are considered guaranteed good mates because of their status. 2) The winners now have more time for a family. 3) The winners are actors, so they were probably really good-looking to begin with.

On the flip side, a different study showed that Best Actress winners are more likely to get a divorce after they win the prize. The researchers analyzed the marriages of 751 nominees for Best Actress, and they found that the actresses who won the title had shorter marriages compared to the actresses who were simply nominated. Interestingly, the trend was not seen in the marriages of men nominated for Best Actor. The study speculates that the results are caused by an upset of traditional gender roles when the female partner gains prestige.

Not only do the Academy Awards inspire scientific discovery, they also explicitly celebrate it.

Two weeks ago, the Academy held its annual ceremony dedicated to celebrating the science and technology behind motion pictures. In the past, the Scientific and Technical Awards Presentation has given awards for such work as Dolby Digital surround sound and IMAX screens. Unlike the actual Academy Awards, recipients are not usually recognized for work they did in the previous year. Instead, the Academy only awards those whose work has has a important and lasting contribution to movie-making.

I guess they don't call it the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for nothing!

Katherine Dickinson
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