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Ig Nobel Prize honors improbable research
November 8, 2012 - Stephen Browne
"The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but, 'That's funny..." —Isaac Asimov
There are lots of prizes for scientific research. Some famous, some obscure. Some that come with sizable cash rewards, some that almost guarantee the recipient lucrative job offers and a leg up on any future grant applications.
But there is one whose reward is a self-described "pittance," which remains obscure though deserving of more recognition, but is probably the most fun of any of them.
I refer to the Ig Nobel Prize http://www.improbable.com/about/
The stated goal of the prize is to make people laugh - and then to make them think. To ask, "How do you decide what's important and what's not, and what's real and what's not — in science and everywhere else?"
And make no mistake, the prize is no joke. Or well actually it sort of is, but the prizes are handed out by real Nobel Prize winners every year at Harvard.
A sample of winners:
In 2012 the CHEMISTRY PRIZE was awarded to Johan Pettersson for finding out why, in certain houses in Anderslöv, Sweden, people's hair turned green.
(Well, I'd certainly want to know why.) The US Government General Accountability Office won the LITERATURE PRIZE, for "issuing a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports."
In 2011 the CHEMISTRY PRIZE was awarded to Makoto Imai, Naoki Urushihata, Hideki Tanemura, Yukinobu Tajima, Hideaki Goto, Koichiro Mizoguchi and Junichi Murakami of JAPAN, for "determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi (pungent horseradish) to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency, and for applying this knowledge to invent the wasabi alarm."
(Yes, I think a wasabi alarm would get me up when all else failed.)
The MEDICINE PRIZE to Mirjam Tuk (of THE NETHERLANDS and the UK), Debra Trampe (of THE NETHERLANDS) and Luk Warlop (of BELGIUM). and jointly to Matthew Lewis, Peter Snyder and Robert Feldman (of the USA), Robert Pietrzak, David Darby, and Paul Maruff (of AUSTRALIA) for "demonstrating that people make better decisions about some kinds of things — but worse decisions about other kinds of things‚ when they have a strong urge to urinate."
(I've always wondered about that...)
In 2010 the MEDICINE PRIZE went to Simon Rietveld of the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and Ilja van Beest of Tilburg University, The Netherlands, for "discovering that symptoms of asthma can be treated with a roller-coaster ride."
In 2009 Dr. Elena Bodnar won for inventing a brassiere that can quickly convert into a pair of protective face masks.
Goofy, for sure. Crackpot, sometimes. Trivial... I'm not so sure.
OK, so Craig Bennett, Abigail Baird, Michael Miller, and George Wolford [USA], won the NEUROSCIENCE PRIXE for "demonstrating that brain researchers, by using complicated instruments and simple statistics, can see meaningful brain activity anywhere — even in a dead salmon."
So what does that say about instruments used in brain research? Detecting brain activity affects a number of medical decisions which might be of some importance - like whether you get the plug pulled if you're in a persistent coma.
For that matter, why does a roller-coaster ride alleviate the symptoms of asthma? Wouldn't you think it would make them worse?
If there's one thing the history of science teaches us, it's that useful results can come from the oddest places.
Did you know that some of Louis Pasteur's most important research was motivated by a patriotic desire to find out why the French couldn't make beer as good as the Germans?
Some important research about cyclonic storms began in the 19th century when some curious scientists started to wonder why the water in a bathtub drain always swirls the same way.
The Ig Nobel Prize deserves recognition for showing the quest for knowledge is not only important to mankind, it's a lot of fun too!
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