Saturday, October 08, 2005

Getting excited about science: the 2005 Ig Nobel prizes.

On Thursday, they awarded the 2005 Ig Nobel Prizes. They don't carry the same cachet as those other Nobel prizes, nor the same hefty cash awards, but the Ig Nobels are often awarded for scientific findings everyday folk can wrap their minds around.

For example, the Ig Nobel in economics went to the inventor of "clocky", an alarm clock that hides so you can't hit the snooze. Who can't appreciate an invention like that? The Ig Nobel in chemistry went to a pair of engineers who studied whether people swim faster or slower in syrup relative to water. (Turns out to be a wash because of the trade-off between drag and leverage.) And, a prize in fluid dynamics was awarded for calculation, from physical principles, of the pressure built up inside penguins before they defecate. It's really the untold story behind March of the Penguins.

Some of the recognized research, I think, is much easier for a scientist to appreciate than for the lay person. The winner of the prize in physics, one of whom was alive to receive the prize, had been conducting an experiment following drops of pitch as they dripped through a funnel -- since 1927. Since the pitch drops fell at the rate of about 1 every nine years, that means that in the 78 years they ran the experiment there were 8 or 9 drops. How's that for careful empiricism? And, if 8 or 9 data points seems too sparse for your tastes, there's the winner in nutrition who photographed and retrospectively analyzed every meal he has eaten for the last 34 years. You'd think the efforts of these scientists could at least make graduate students feel better ... but I'm not sure folks who haven't done the time to try to get an experiment to work, or to get enough data to get meaningful results, would be sufficiently impressed.

Also, a few of the Ig Nobel prizes usually go to projects that, uh, don't seem to yield much in the way of new knowledge. The stand-out this year is the prize in medicine, which was awarded to the inventor of neuticles. I'm not saying that a dog might not retain his self-esteem, post-neutering, better with neuticles than without ... but as far as I can tell there wasn't much canine self-esteem research. Yes, different sizes and levels of firmness offer the consumer/pet guardian lots of choices ... but this is a medical achievement? If you ask me, it just doesn't rise to the same level as watching pitch drops for 78 years. (This year may just be a fluke. The 2004 Ig Nobel Prize in medicine went to research on the effect of country music on suicide.)

I'm hopeful that schoolchildren hearing newsreports about some of these winners will be inspired to pursue science, engineering, and medicine in the hopes of snagging one of these prizes for themselves some day. In my heart of hearts, though, I fear they'll be more inspired by the winners of this year's Ig Nobel Prize for literature:

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.

Why do the poets get more respect than the scientists?

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