The 2005 Ig Nobel Awards
(This 760th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on October 23, 2005.)
This is the season when the prestigious Nobel Awards are announced in Sweden. It is also the time when the somewhat less prestigious Ig Nobel Awards are announced at Harvard University.
The Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded each year by the science humor magazine, Annals of Improbable Research, to those who have done something "that first makes people laugh, then makes people think."
Although they are given for research that "cannot or should not be reproduced," they do not have the negative connotation of former Senator William Proxmire's Golden Fleece awards (rarely are they grant supported) and do not fit the London Times description as a "role of dishonor." Instead, as the organizers claim, they "celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative -- and spur people's interest in science, medicine and technology." Also the research usually represents minor activity in otherwise distinguished careers.
To underscore this, the awards are presented by real Nobel Prize winners and many of those being kidded travel long distances to accept. Indeed, this year longtime Ig Nobel participant, Roy Glauber, won the real Nobel Physics Prize.
Roy Glauber sweeping paper airplanes from the stage in this earlier ceremony as four other Nobelists watch. Note the shoes.
Here then are this year's awards.
ECONOMICS to Gauri Nanda of MIT for inventing an alarm clock that runs away and hides repeatedly, thus insuring that people do get up and theoretically adding productive hours to the workday.
PHYSICS to two Australians for an experiment that began in 1927 in which a glob of tar has been slowly dripping through a funnel at the rate of about one drop every nine years. Sadly, one of the investigators died between the second and third drops.
PEACE to Claire Rind and Peter Simmons of England for electronically monitoring the brain activity of a locust watching excerpts from the film "Star Wars". This seemingly ridiculous study did have a serious purpose: to contribute to our understanding of brain function in response to frightening images of collisions, which may prove useful in the design of automotive safety systems.
Dr. Rind attended the ceremony. Dr. Simmons, her husband who stayed home to baby-sit their children, sent word that he assumed their award of the peace prize "had something to do with us being married yet still collaborating on our research."
BIOLOGY to an Australian team for "painstakingly smelling and cataloging the peculiar odors produced by 131 different frog species when the frogs were feeling stressed.
CHEMISTRY to Edward Cussler and Brian Gettelfinger of the University of Minnesota for their controlled experiment to see if people swim faster in syrup or in water. The most difficult part of the experiment, they said, was filling a swimming pool with syrup and later cleaning it out. The result: a tie.
MEDICINE to Gregg Miller of Missouri for inventing Neuticles, artificial replacement testicles for dogs, "available in three sizes and three degrees of firmness."
NUTRITION to Yoshiro Nakamats of Japan for photographing and retrospectively analyzing every meal he consumed for 34 years -- and counting.
FLUID DYNAMICS to a group of German, Finish and Hungarian scientists for their report in Polar Biology, "Pressures Produced when Penguins Pooh -- Calculations in Avian Defecation." They carefully determined the internal pressures required to generate the long stream of feces the birds produced.
The London Times conjectures that the United States refusal to allow the team members visas to attend the ceremony might have been because of "the risk that this work may pose to homeland security."
AGRICULTURAL HISTORY to James Watson of New Zealand for his study of dairy farming titled "The Significance of Mr. Richard Buckley's Exploding Trousers." No article could ever live up to that title.
And finally, my favorite:
LITERATURE to "The Internet entrepreneurs of Nigeria, for creating and then using e-mail to distribute a bold series of short stories, thus introducing millions of readers to a cast of rich characters -- General Sani Abacha, Mrs. Mariam Sanni Abacha, Barrister Jon A Mbeki Esq., and others -- each of whom requires just a small amount of expense money so as to obtain access to the great wealth to which they are entitled and which they would like to share with the kind person who assists them."
Email users will understand that award.
These prizes prove that scientists have a rich sense of humor.-- Gerry Rising