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Scientists awarded for putting the fizz in physics, the giggles in gigabytes
Victoria Lambert - Daily Telegraph
September 21, 2011
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Scientists awarded for putting the fizz in physics, the giggles in gigabytes
Photograph by: Kirk Lyttle, Mcclatchy Newspapers Files, Daily Telegraph

Showered with paper airplanes, garlanded by admiring Nobel laureates, some of the world's quirkiest scientists will be honoured at a sellout ceremony at Harvard University next week.

The 21st annual Ig Nobel Prizes, conferred by the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), have become one of the most coveted prizes in science. Bringing neither personal riches nor offers of future funding, the Ig Nobels do bestow a heavy dollop of cool on their winners who, collectively, seem to put the fizz in physics and the giggles in gigabytes.

Recent winners include a U.K.-Mexico collaboration for perfecting a method to collect whale snot using a remote-controlled helicopter; Dutch duo Simon Rietveld and Ilja van Beest for discovering that some forms of asthma can be treated with a roller-coaster ride; and a team from Otago University, New Zealand, for demonstrating that, on icy footpaths in winter, people slip and fall less often if they wear socks on the outside of their shoes.

In 2009, Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson of Newcastle University won for revealing that cows with names give more milk than cows that are nameless. Howard Stapleton of Merthyr Tydfil triumphed in 2006 for inventing an electro-mechanical teenager repellent. And in 2005, an award went to Claire Rind and Peter Simmons of Newcastle University (again) for electrically monitoring the activity of a brain cell in a locust that was being shown selected highlights of Star Wars.

If it all sounds like a lot of geeks getting together to let their long hair down, whip off their white coats and, over a glass of champagne, sort out some sticky issues (like Edward Cussler and Brian Gettelfinger, University of Minnesota, winners for the experiment: Can people swim faster in syrup or in water?), you wouldn't be far wrong.

Organizer and inventor Marc Abrahams explains his motivation: "I became the editor of a science magazine [The Journal of Irreproducible Results], and suddenly was meeting lots of people who had done wonderfully loopy things - but it was clear that most of them would never earn any sort of recognition for what they'd done. So I decided to help out a bit. Thus was born the first Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, in 1991."

That first year saw Jacques Benveniste, controversial French immunologist, honoured for demonstrating (to his own satisfaction, if no one else's) the mooted homeopathic principle that water is able to "remember" events long after all trace of them has vanished.

As the awards have grown, it is clear that what they do (more than honouring semi-obscure theoreticians) is to celebrate the humour intrinsic in much of science and many of its practitioners. Abrahams recognizes this connection: "What scientists do is, by its nature, frustrating. They are trying to understand things that no one else has managed to understand. Much of the time they will fail at this, but occasionally they will succeed, and maybe change the world. If you know that your job inevitably involves living through lots of failures, it helps to have a sense of humour about yourself.

"When a scientist makes a really good, unexpected discovery, everyone else's first reaction is going to be laughter: how can this discovery be true? And then they see that yes, it's true, and pretty soon everyone thinks it's ordinary. It's much better that people laugh at a new discovery, and think about it, than attack it from the off."

This, perhaps, is the true charm of the awards: They make the public smile - and then think.

Richard Stephens, senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Keele University, made the podium last year for proving that swearing relieves pain.

Dr. Gareth Jones of the University of Bristol (winner, 2010, for scientifically documenting fellatio in fruit bats) is also grateful. "Yes, I'm proud of my Ig Nobel. Humour is a valuable way of popularizing science." And he points out: "Many of the prizes are awarded for serious science. My own work on fellatio in fruit bats led to feedback from members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science about female mate-choice strategies, and whether animals experience the equivalence of 'pleasure' in humans.

"Andre Geim from Manchester, who won the 2000 Ig Nobel Prize in Physics, went on to win the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for his research on graphene."

Perhaps the Ig Nobels are, in fact, an experiment in their own right: to see why, when some scientists are looking at the stars, others are stuck staring in the gutter, like the 2010 Transportation Planning Prize winners from Japan and the U.K., honoured for their work using slime mould to determine the optimal routes for rail tracks.

+ Wexico

On Sept. 29, genuine Nobel laureates will hand the prizes to the winners. But whoever wins shouldn't get too excited, warns Dr. Stephens - you don't go home with a golden trophy. "Mine was a plaque, a bit like a petri dish with three bacterialike creatures made of packing foam attached."

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