Friday, October 02, 2009

And the Ig Nobel goes to...

The tension is mounting as the 2009 Nobel prize announcements kick off with medicine on Monday, so what better way to defuse it than to get scientists laughing at themselves? That's just what happened last night at the 2009 Ig Nobel Prize ceremony at Harvard.

The Ig Nobel prizes "honor achievements that make people laugh, and then make them think," according to Improbable Research, which organizes the prizes. Improbable Research is also home to a curated journal of kooky (but 100% serious) scientific papers and Improbable TV. Several Nobel laureates, including physicists Frank Wilczek, Roy Glauber, and Wolfgang Ketterle, were on hand to present the Ig Nobel laureates with their infinite chicken-egg-loop trophy. Experts in their field were also asked to prepare "24/7" speeches, where a 24-word technical description in incomprehensible jargon is followed by seven words saying the same thing intelligibly. Here's one from Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman (though his seven is actually eight):


Given decentralized constrained optimization by maximizing agents with well-defined convex objective functions and/or convex production functions, engaging in exchange and production with free disposal, leads, in the absence of externalities, market power, and other distortions, there exists an equilibrium characterized by Pareto optimality.


Greedy people, competing, make the world go round.

This year the Ig Nobel prize in physics went to anthropologists Katherine Whitcome of the University of Cincinnati, Daniel Lieberman of Harvard, and Liza Shapiro at the University of Texas at Austin for "analytically determining why pregnant women don't tip over." Last year the prize went to Dorian Raymer of the Ocean Observatories Initiative at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, USA, and Douglas Smith of the University of California, San Diego, USA, for "proving mathematically that heaps of string or hair or almost anything else will inevitably tangle themselves up in knots."

Whitcome et. al's work is actually pretty interesting. According to Nature News, the team "measured the centre of mass of 19 pregnant women and found that they leaned back by as much as 28ยบ beyond the normal curve of the spine...The researchers found this lowers the torque around the hip created by the baby's weight by roughly eight times."

Such an exaggerated curve would usually cause back pain, slipping, or even fractures in a man, where the curved part of the lower back spans two vertebrae. In women, it spans three; additionally, Nature News reports, "specialized joints behind the spinal cord are 14 percent larger relative to vertebrae size in women than in men," and are also at a slightly different angle. The researchers also saw similar features in male and female Australopithecus fossils. The research was reported in a paper titled "Fetal load and the evolution of lumbar lordosis in bipedal hominins" and published in Nature in 2007.

I haven't been able to find any video of the ceremony online yet, but the ceremony was recorded by NPR and will be broadcast on "Talk of the Nation/ Science Friday" the day after Thanksgiving. You can also check out the Ig Nobel crew on tour at Imperial College London.

Here are the rest of the Ig Nobel laureates:

Veterinary medicine: Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson of Newcastle University, UK, for showing that cows with names give more milk than cows that are nameless.

Peace: Stephan Bolliger, Steffen Ross, Lars Oesterhelweg, Michael Thali and Beat Kneubuehl of the University of Bern, Switzerland, for determining whether it is better to be smashed over the head with a full bottle of beer or with an empty bottle.

Biology: Fumiaki Taguchi, Song Guofu and Zhang Guanglei of Kitasato University Graduate School of Medical Sciences in Sagamihara, Japan, for demonstrating that kitchen refuse can be reduced more than 90% in mass by using bacteria extracted from the faeces of giant pandas.

Medicine: Donald L Unger of Thousand Oaks, California, US, for investigating a possible cause of arthritis of the fingers, by diligently cracking the knuckles of his left hand but not his right hand every day for more than 60 years.

Economics: The directors, executives, and auditors of four Icelandic banks for demonstrating that tiny banks can be rapidly transformed into huge banks, and vice versa (and for demonstrating that similar things can be done to an entire national economy).

Chemistry: Javier Morales, Miguel Apatiga and Victor M Castano of Universidad Nacional Autonoma in Mexico, for creating diamonds from tequila.

Irish police, or Garda: they'll catch that Prawo Jazdy fiend some day.

Literature: Ireland's police service for writing and presenting more than 50 traffic tickets to the most frequent driving offender in the country - Prawo Jazdy - whose name in Polish means "Driving Licence".

Public Health: Elena N Bodnar, Raphael C Lee, and Sandra Marijan of Chicago, US, for inventing a bra that can be quickly converted into a pair of gas masks - one for the wearer and one to be given to a needy bystander.

Mathematics: Gideon Gono, governor of Zimbabwe's Reserve Bank, for giving people a simple, everyday way to cope with a wide range of numbers by having his bank print notes with denominations ranging from one cent to one hundred trillion dollars.

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