Monday, October 04, 2010

The Nobel Prize's Goofy Cousin

Each year around this time the Nobel Prizes are awarded to scientists who have made tremendous contributions to the world. These awards are given to great thinkers who have changed humankind's understanding of the universe, or developed a lifesaving medical breakthrough or work to bring peace to the world.

Never has a Nobel Prize been awarded to research for ways to turn tequila into diamonds. Nor will it ever go to the inventor of Karaoke for his contributions to world peace or the scientists who studied "the five second rule."

That's where the famous (or infamous depending on who you ask) Ig Nobel Awards come in. Marc Abrahams, then editor of Science, Started them in 1991 by because he kept seeing odd, quirky and genuinely funny science research that no one had a chance to see. He wanted to put together an outlet for researchers who studied burning questions like whether toast really does fall butter side down (it DOES!).

This year's winners showed that science keeps its sense of the absurd.
Lianne Parkin, Sheila Williams, and Patricia Priest of the University of Otago, New Zealand won the Ig Nobel physics prize for their research into whether wearing socks on the outside of one's shoes helps maintain traction on icy slopes. They found that it does help by having a random sample of students at their university wear socks externally. They compare the number of times the students wearing the socks externally fell on the icy hills with the number of times students fell who were wearing uncovered shoes.

This year's winner for engineering particularly caught my eye after heading up to MIT two weeks ago. Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse and Agnes Rocha-Gosselin of the Zoological Society of London, and Diane Gendron of Instituto Politecnico Nacional, Baja California Sur, Mexico won for developing a remote controlled helicopter to collect whale snot. The team rigged a remote control helicopter with an open Petri dish on its underside and waited for a whale to surface. When it did, they flew the copter through the water shooting out of the whale's blow hole, collecting whale snot with microbial samples along with it.

Another favorite of mine was the Management prize for the research done by Alessandro Pluchino, Andrea Rapisarda, and Cesare Garofalo of the University of Catania, Italy. They proved mathematically by comparing different management techniques that, counter-intuitively, the key to an efficiently run organization is to promote people at random. I know I've had jobs where it seemed like that was the management philosophy.

The Ig Nobel awards celebrate quirky science that "makes people laugh then makes them think." The complete list of winners all the way back to 1991 can found at their website.

Stay tuned to PhysicsBuzz, we'll come back with a more in depth look at this year's Ig Nobel prizes in an upcoming podcast including exclusive interviews with both Ig Nobel and Nobel laureates alike.

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