2015 Ig Nobel Prizes - "Celebrating" Improbable Research
“The Ig Nobel awards are arguably the highlight of the scientific calendar.” – Nature
This is the Nobel season. Awards for Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, and Literature have been announced. I will write about the Nobel in another column. This column is about the Ig Nobel Prizes – awarded last month.
Founded in 1991 (and now in its 25th year) the Ig Nobel is about celebrating improbable research – research that makes people laugh and then think. Real research, about anything and everything, from everywhere, good or bad, important or trivial, valuable or worthless, is collected, filtered, and the “best” (?) ones are chosen for the honor.
The award ceremony is held at Harvard University’s Sanders Theater, followed by public lectures at MIT.
Here’s the most improbable part of the event: Real Nobel Laureates present the Awards.
Here are the 2015 winning proposals with a brief description of the research. For details, references, and acceptance speeches, visit the official site: http://www.improbable.com/
Chemistry Prize: 11 researchers (2 from Australia and 9 from the USA) for inventing a chemical recipe to partially un-boil an egg.
Physics Prize: 4 researchers (from USA and Taiwan) for testing the biological principle that all mammals empty their bladders in about 21 seconds (plus or minus 13 seconds)
Literature Prize: 3 researchers (The Netherlands and USA) for discovering that the word “huh” (or its equivalent) seems to exist in every human language – and for not being quite sure why.
Management Prize: 3 researchers (Italy, USA and India) for discovering that many business leaders developed in childhood a fondness for risk-taking, when they experienced natural disasters (such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and wildfires) that – for them – had no dire personal consequences.
Economics Prize: The Bangkok Metropolitan Police (Thailand) for offering to pay policemen extra cash if the policemen refused to take bribes.
Medicine Prize: 8 researchers (Japan, China, Slovakia, USA, UK, and Germany) for experiments to study the biomedical benefits or biomedical consequences of intense kissing (and other related activities).
Mathematics Prize: 2 researchers (Austria and Germany) for trying to use mathematical techniques to determine whether and how a bloodthirsty emperor of Morocco managed, during the years 1697 – 1727, to father 888 children.
Biology Prize: 5 researchers (Chile and the USA) for observing that when you attach a weighted stick to the rear end of a chicken, the chicken then walks in a manner similar to that in which dinosaurs are thought to have walked.
Diagnostic Medicine Prize: 8 researchers (Canada, New Zealand, Bahrain, Belgium, Dubai, South Africa, UK, and the USA) for determining that acute appendicitis can be accurately diagnosed by the amount of pain evident when the patient is driven over speed bumps.
Physiology and Entomology Prize: 2 researchers (USA and Canada) for painstakingly creating the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, which rates the relative pain people feel when stung by various insects, and on different locations of the body.
Ladies and Gentlemen, this is no laughing matter. The organization that manages these awards, the Annals of Improbable Research (successor to the Journal of Irreproducible Results) boasts of 20000 articles culled from leading Journals, has eminent scientists including Nobel Laureates on its editorial board, produces podcasts (distributed by CBS), has a newspaper column (in The Guardian), a blog, books, and videos.
Please also remember that the research for which the Prizes have been given have already been published or have been accepted for publication in prestigious Journals.
Which brings us to the central question: Research is supposed to showcase the ever growing capacity of humans to enlarge the frontiers of knowledge and as a consequence of wisdom. If the work that has been recognized (for the last 25 years) is indeed a representation of what is really going on and how resources (public or otherwise) are being expended, is it any wonder that we find ourselves in a world where problems exceed solutions? If some form of legitimacy is sought to be bestowed on the circus by having Real Nobel Laureates present the prizes, what does it say about the ethos of the Laureates themselves? Or are we supposed to dismiss this is a big joke and possibly a publicity stunt? It would indeed be interesting to know who, if any, are the sponsors of this annual and ongoing exercise in futility.
What do you think?