Friday, 5 October 2007

Ig Nobel Prizes - such fun!

Oh how I love this time of year. The leaves are yellowing, the mornings are crisp and clear, but above all, it's silly season.

That's right, it's the time of year when strange, bewildering, baffling science gets acknowledged, nay, celebrated, with the handing out of the 'prestigious' Ig Noble Prizes.

For the uninitiated - the Ig Nobels are handed out every year by folks at Harvard University - well, the awards ceremony is held there at any rate, the prizes themselves are granted by the humorous bunch who publish the Annals of Improbable Research. A parody of the Nobel Prize, an Ig Nobel is given in categories that mirror the actual Nobels, plus a few more thrown in for fun.

As ever, this year the winners' list makes good reading. As reported in the Guardian, the Ig for Medicine was awarded jointly to Brian Witcombe and Dan Meyer, for their groundbreaking meta-analysis study (published in the BMJ, although admittedly in the Christmas special edition which is worth reading itself...!) of the dangers of sword swallowing. The thing with the Ig Nobels is that some of the work is deliberately toungue-in-cheek, almost as if it was carried out with an Ig in mind (a bit like those contrived Oscar-driven movies that seem to have been shot with the sole purpose of picking up an Academy Award), much like the work of Mayu Yamamoto, winner of the Ig for Chemistry. He has developed a method for extracting vanilla flavour, for use in food, from cow dung. Mmmm, nice.

Or how about Glenda Browne's Ig-for-literature-winning research into how the word "the" causes problems for people compiling an index? Ever wondered why your rat just doesn't understand you? Try not speaking backwards, and avoiding Japanese - the winners of the linguistics prize figured out that rats cannot understand these complex aspects of language variation.

Much of the work for which these spoofs are handed out is peer-reviewed and published, some in surprisingly prestigious journals - how about Nature, Physical Review Letters and PNAS for a CV? The physics prize went to investigators whose body of work helps us understand why sheets wrinkle.

From the study of how Viagra lessens the impact of jet-lag in hamsters (I kid you not, this is a genuine study published, again, in PNAS), to a proposal for developing a weapon designed to make enemy soldiers sexually attracted to each other (the so-called "Gay Bomb" won The Air Force Wright Laboratory in Ohio the Ig Nobel for Peace), via a census of the bugs, ferns, crustaceans and fungi that inhabit our beds - the Ig Nobels truly do make the autumn chill that much more fun.

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