Ig Nobel Novelty

The Ig Nobel awards are another form of subversive humor. (See last post.)
igNobellogoThe Ig Nobel Prizes are a parody of the Nobel Prizes and like them, since the early 1990s, have been awarded each fall. They go to ten achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think.”  (The logo is Rodin’s statue of “The Thinker” lying on its back and renamed, “The Stinker.)

Organized by the scientific humor journal Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) (www.improbable.com), the Ig Nobels are presented during a raucous ceremony at HarvardUniversity that is intended “to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative – and spur people’s interest in science, medicine and technology.” The ceremony begins with paper airplanes being thrown by audience members onto the stage, and dignity is never fully restored thereafter.

This year, for example, a multinational team led by Masateru Uchiyama of Japan won theigNobel mouse prize for medicine for showing that mice that had undergone heart transplants and listened to a well-known opera during their recovery lived considerably longer than mice that were not exposed to opera music. Two of the recipients who shared the prize with Mr. Uchiyama came on stage wearing mouse costumes and carrying pillow hearts which they squeezed in musical rhythm.

Winners are determined by the Ig Nobel Prize Board of Governors, some of whom are real Nobel Laureates. The governors choose the most imaginative, unusual and curious entries, provided the prize will not cause the researchers embarrassment, because their primary tenet is “First, do no harm.”

But that doesn’t mean that these folks are not serious scientists. For example, Russian-born/British-based scientist Andre Geim, was the winner of a 2000 Ig Nobel for making a frog levitate using magnets. In 2010 he was the winner of the real Nobel Prize for physics for his work with graphene, which, according to the Nobel press release on the award is a one atom thick layer of carbon with “exceptional properties that originate from the remarkable world of quantum physics.”  I sadly admit I can understand levitating frogs much more readily.

The point is, however odd the research that wins them an Ig Nobel might be, it’s possible that there could be potential real-world applications at a later date, even when those applications are not entirely obvious, as here:

  • Dung beetles, when they are lost, navigate by the Milky Way. (Joint prize in biology and astronomy)
  • The longer a cow has been lying down, the more likely that cow will soon stand up, but once a cow stands up, you cannot easily predict how soon that cow will lie down again. (Probability prize)

Other research seems to prove the obvious. Every woman who has ever gone to a bar could have confirmed, for example, the research of the mostly French team that won the Ig Nobel Psychology Prize for proving that people who are drunk – or who even think they are drunk – also think they are attractive.

A couple of years ago, Robert Rector, a former editor of the Pasadena Star-News and Los Angeles Times commented on the Ig Nobel prizes on his blog (http://www.sgvtribune.com/opinions/ci_16301340), and raised some interesting points about past Ig Nobel winners.:

One of the winners perfected a method for collecting whale snot using a remote-control helicopter. How did they retrieve samples in the past and why on earth do they do it?

New Zealand scientists demonstrated that, on icy footpaths in wintertime, people slip and fall less often if they wear socks on the outside of their shoes. Still, because the test subjects reported feeling “slightly ridiculous,” we predict: The practice is not likely to catch on before hell freezes over.

rollercoasterAs for the researchers who discovered that symptoms of asthma can be treated with a roller-coaster ride:

  • Did they study the Ferris wheel, fun house and tilt-a-whirl first?

Not all questions get answered, but it’s nice when science makes us smile.




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