Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Ig Nobels

The Nobel Prize is arguably the most famous prize in the world. Past winners include Albert Einstein1, Marie and Pierre Curie, Robert Millikan2, and Erwin Schrödinger. The Nobel is a prestigious prize that just about every researcher - whether they admit it or not - hopes to one day win. The Ig Nobels, on the other hand, are a parody of the Nobel prizes. They award "research that makes you laugh, then makes you think". Originally the award was for "research that cannot, or should not, be reproduced". Sometimes they are awarded for examples of pseudoscience, but often the Ig Nobel is given for research that makes you think - Who decided to research that?

Some of my favorite past examples (see here for a complete list) include:
  • 1995 - Physics: A rigorous analysis of what makes breakfast cereal sogggy.
  • 1998 - Safety Engineering: Developing and personally testing a suit of armor that is impervious to grizzly bears.
  • 2007 - Physics: A theoretical study of how sheets become wrinkled.
  • 2009 - Physics: Analytically determining why pregnant women do not tip over.
  • 2011 - Physics: Trying to determine why discus throwers become dizzy, and why hammer throwers don't, in their paper "Dizziness in discus throwers is related to motion sickness generated while spinning"
This year the Ig Nobels were held on September 20th. Some of my favorites this year are:
The Ig Nobels are also pretty fun to watch. It's not some dry science awards ceremony - for example, if a speaker goes over the given time limit a young child walks on stage and starts screaming "Please stop, I'm bored" louder and louder until the speaker walks off stage. If you have the time you can watch the 2012 award ceremony here.

Notes
[1] Einstein did not win the Nobel prize for relativity or his equation E = mc2, his most well known contributions to science. Instead he won the prize for his work on the photoelectric effect, which describes how electrons are removed from metals by shining light on them. This work was an important first step into quantum mechanics.
[2] If you have taken a class at Brigham Young University you have no doubt heard of Robert Millikan. He won a Nobel prize for accurately measuring the charge of an electron. This work was made possible by major contributions from Harvey Fletcher (the inventor of the electronic hearing aid), a BYU graduate.