Monday, October 12, 2009

And the Winner Is....

I'm a bit jaded when it comes to awards. Maybe it's because we live in Hollywood, where everyone is a (fill in the blank) nominee for (fill in the blank).

Walk onto a film set and you immediately become a candidate for an Oscar, an Emmy, a Golden Globe, a Peoples' Choice Award, a MTV Movie Award, an Internet Movie Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Kids Choice Award.

There are awards for blacks and Hispanics and gays, short subjects, long subjects, horror movies, science fiction movies, political movies, adult movies and everything in between. Even box-office bombs are honored each year with the Golden Raspberry Awards, or Razzies.

There are plenty for everybody. Pass them around.

That's why it's refreshing to take note from time to time of the unique and exclusive Ig Nobel awards, presented each year at Harvard University by the Annals of Improbable Research magazine.

With tongue firmly in cheek, the Ig Noble folks honor scientific articles that have some humorous or unexpected aspect, such as the two California scientists I wrote about several years ago who conducted extensive research on why woodpeckers don't get headaches. Or the distinguished researchers who studied why people dislike the sound of fingernails scraping on a blackboard.

Obviously, these awards are hard to come by. One must combine intense research with the curiosity and sophistication of an 8-year-old to make the cut here.

Behind the laughter, there's usually a semi-serious purpose.

Take, for instance, Stephan Bolliger, who along with four colleagues in Switzerland conducted a study that confirmed an empty beer bottle makes a better weapon than a full beer bottle in a fight.

It's unclear whether Bollinger and his mates, dressed in lab coats and armed with jagged test tubes, brawled their way through the local taverns to reach this conclusion.

Nonetheless, Bollinger told the Associated Press that his research has legitimate value. Lawyers and judges in court cases have asked how much damage a blow to the head with a bottle can cause, and the study could help decide future cases.

Dr. Elena Bodnar, honored for developing a bra that converts into a pair of gas masks - one for the wearer, the other for a friend - said that she came up with the idea while studying the effects of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear-plant disaster. If people had had cheap, readily available gas masks in the first hours after the disaster, she said, they may have avoided breathing in iodine-131, which causes radiation sickness.

Besides, her patented devices look pretty, she added.

It's hard to argue with research like that.

Other notable winners:

Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson for showing that cows with names give more milk than unnamed cows. Rowlinson said naming cows was just one aspect of their research that showed that when humans are nice to animals, the animals return the affection (thereby validating the old Carnation advertising slogan, "milk from contented cows").

Katherine Whitcome, Liza Shapiro and Daniel Lieberman for figuring out why pregnant women don't tip over. Women, it appears, have slight differences in their lumbar vertebrae that helps compensate for their changing center of gravity. So women are different. Who knew?

Executives of four Icelandic banks for showing how tiny banks can become huge banks, and then become tiny banks again.

Javier Morales, Miguel Apatiga and Victor Castano for creating diamonds out of tequila.

These awards take their place in the pantheon of past winners, which includes researchers who showed lap dancers get higher tips when they are ovulating and an investigation into whether suicide rates are linked to the amount of country music played on the radio.

Then there's a special salute for the Air Force Wright Laboratory of Dayton, Ohio, for instigating research and development on a chemical weapon - the so-called "gay bomb" - that will make enemy soldiers become sexually irresistible to each other.

All of this comes at a time that the British government has unveiled plans to allocate research funding according to how much "impact" the research has.

The plans have come under fire from academics, who say that curiosity-driven, speculative research has led to some of the most important breakthroughs in scientific history, including penicillin, relativity theory and the theory of evolution.

Not to mention happy cows.

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