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The 2005 Ig Nobel Prizes

It’s once again time for the scientific world’s most prestigious awards to be handed out.

I’m talking, of course, about the Ig Nobel Prizes.

The Ig Nobels are presented each year by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research to researchers who have done something that first makes people laugh, then makes them think. The goal is not (just) to poke fun, but to “celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative—and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.”

Complete details are online; I’ve only got space to highlight a couple and list the rest.

Unlike most commentators in the mainstream media, I will resist the temptation to focus on either Neuticles, the artificial replacement testicles for dogs (available in three sizes, and three degrees of firmness) for which Gregg A. Miller of Missouri won the Ig Nobel in Medicine, or the research of Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow of Germany and Jozsef Gal of Hungary, who won an Ig Nobel in Fluid Dynamics for “Pressures Produced When Penguins Pooh—Calculations on Avian Defecation.”

Instead, I wish to mention the Ig Nobel in Biology, the only one with a Canadian connection this year. It was won by Benjamin Smith (whose list of affiliations includes the University of Toronto), along with fellow researchers Craig Williams, Brian Williams and Yoji Hayasaka, all of Australia, “for painstakingly smelling and cataloging the peculiar odors produced by 131 different species of frogs when the frogs were feeling stressed.”

Personally, I believe the process of “painstakingly smelling and cataloging” the peculiar odors of stressed frogs would leave me feeling stressed, but I guess that’s why I’m just writing about these things instead of winning Ig Nobels of my own.

Australia researchers also won the Ig Nobel for Physics. John Mainstone and the late Thomas Parnell of the University of Queensland won for their work in continuing an experiment that Parnell, the U of Q’s first professor of physics, set up in the department’s foyer in 1927.

Parnell warmed pitch and poured it into a glass funnel sealed at the bottom. Three years later the sealed stem was cut. Since then the pitch has been allowed to flow out of the funnel and a record kept of the dates when the drops fell. The first fell in 1938, and they’ve continued at eight- or nine-year intervals since, with the most recent falling in 2000. With luck, we may see the ninth drop in this very decade!

Briefly, the rest of the winners:

The Ig Nobel in Agricultural History went to yet another antipodean, James Watson of New Zealand, for his study of technological change in New Zealand’s dairy industry between the World Wars, entitled “The Significance of Mr. Richard Buckley’s Exploding Trousers.”

Claire Rind and Peter Simmons of the U.K. won the Ig Nobel for Peace for monitoring the electrical activity of a locust’s brain cell while the insect was watching highlights from Star Wars. (They were trying to learn more about the brain’s response to the sight of moving objects, or so they claim…although it sounds to me like a great way to get grant money for watching science fiction flicks.)

Not all Ig Nobel Prizes go to such esoteric research. Gauri Nanda of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology won the Economics award for a very practical invention: an alarm clock that runs away and hides, repeatedly, forcing people to get out of bed to track it down and kill it—er, shut it off. Forcing people to get up, obviously, contributes to economic productivity.

Edward Cussler and Brian Gettelfinger of the U.S. won the Chemistry Ig Nobel for conducting a careful experiment determine whether people can swim faster in syrup or in water, while Dr. Yoshiro Nakamats of Tokyo, Japan, won the Nutrition Ig Nobel for photographing and analyzing every meal he has consumed over the last 34 years.

Last, but certainly not least, the Ig Nobel for Literature went 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.”

At last: a major literary award has been won by something everyone has read!

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