This is the time of the year when the winners of the prestigious Nobel Prizes are announced with great fanfare and acclaim.
That’s all well and good, but the real Nobel Prizes, frankly, take themselves far too seriously. They tend to support the prevailing belief that science is stuffy, boring, and, well, nobel–er, noble.
Fortunately, last week the annual Ig Nobel Prizes were also awarded, for scientific research that “cannot and should not be reproduced.”
The Ig Nobels are sponsored by the humorous science magazine (no, that’s not an oxymoron) Annals of Improbable Research, several Harvard University science societies, and Duck Brand™ Bubble Wrap™, “the official substance of the Ig Nobel Prizes.”
The prizes were handed out by four Nobel laureates at Harvard University. The event also featured a contest to decide the smartest person in the world (contestants spoke simultaneously for 30 seconds), the premiere of “The Brain Food Opera,” and the popular Win A Date with a Nobel Laureate contest.
Alas, this year’s winners do not include any Canadians, unlike last year, when Steve Penfold of York University took home the Ig Nobel Award in Sociology for his Ph.D. thesis on the sociology of Canadian doughnut shops.
The 2000 Ig Nobel Prizes went to:
In biology, Richard Wassersug for his groundbreaking 1971 paper, “On the Comparitive Palatibility of Some Dry-Season Tadpoles from Costa Rica,” which appeared in The American Midland Naturalist and included the memorable sentence, “I wish to express my thanks to the students and faculty of The Organization for Tropical Studies course, Tropical Biology: An Ecologocial Approach, Winter 1970, who willingly tasted live tadpoles.” (Wassersug, a respected NASA scientists, noted it’s not often you can conduct your research for just the cost of a few beers.)
In psychology, David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University for “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 77, No. 6, 1999). Their study showed that the more incompetent someone is, the more likely that someone is to believe he or she is actually highly skilled, which is why so much bad self-published poetry and fiction appear on the Web.
In chemistry, Donatella Marazziti, Alessandra Rossi and Giovanni B. Cassano of the University of Pisa for discovering that, biochemically, romantic love strongly resembles severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, thereby connecting “the erotic with the neurotic.”
In medicine, Willibrord Weijmar Schultz, Pek van Andel, Eduard Mooyaart and Ida Sabelis of the Netherlands for their paper, “Magnetic Resonance Imaging of Male and Female Genitals During Coitus and Female Sexual Arousal,” (British Medical Journal, Vol. 319, 1999, available wherever find brown-paper-covered magazines are sold).
In computer science, Chris Niswander for inventing PawSense, software that can tell when a cat is walking on a keyboard and refuses to accept the resulting nonsense as valid input (look for it at www.bitboost.com/pawsense, if your cat will let you use the computer).
In public health, Jonathan Wyatt, Gordon McNaughton and William Tullet of Scotland for their riveting and alarming account of “The Collapse of Toilets in Glasgow,” (Scottish Medical Journal, Vol. 38, 1993).
In economics, the Reverend Sun Myng Moon, for bringing efficiency and steady growth to the mass-marriage industry; he officiated at a 36-couple wedding in 1960, a 6,000-couple wedding in 1982 and a 36-million-couple wedding in 1997; eventually, all weddings will be performed by Rev. Moon.
In literature, Jasmuheen (aka Ellen Greve) of Brisbane, Australia, for “Living on Light”(Koha Publishing, 1988), which claims we don’t really need food, we can live on light and air. (Anxious to cut down on food bills? Visit www.selfempowermentacademy.com.au.)
Finally, the Ig Nobel Prize for Peace went to the British Navy, for ordering sailors to stop using live cannon shells and just shout “Bang!” instead.
Although some of the awards are obviously intended to poke fun at ridiculous beliefs like Breatharianism, many of the Ig Nobel Awards are given to scientists who are conducting legitimate and valuable research. But just because research is valuable doesn’t mean it isn’t also funny; and by poking a little gentle fun at science, the organizers of the Ig Nobel Prizes hope to show people, especially young people, that science doesn’t have to be dull–and a scientist is not necessarily a stuffed shirt.
If that helps convince a few more people to go into the sciences, then the Ig Nobels may be a little bit noble after all.