Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Nobel Causes

Thank God for the gift of science. Without it, I would be etching this column on the wall of a cave using a bird feather dipped in animal blood.

Actually, several of my readers have suggested I do just that. But I digress.

For all the gifts science has provided us - imagine a world without auto alarms, Snuggies and plastic grocery bags - researchers sometimes get a little goofy in their never-ending quest to push the boundaries.

For these folks, we have the Ig Nobel Prizes, awarded each year at Harvard University to those whose research might strike many of us as downright silly.

Or as the sponsors, the Annals of Improbable Research, put it, "science that makes you laugh, then makes you think."

Past winners include a study that confirmed an empty beer bottle makes a better weapon than a full beer bottle in a fight, a scientist who studied why woodpeckers don't get headaches and the invention of a bra that can double as two protective face masks in an emergency.

Thanks to a generous benefactor, winners receive a 10-trillion Zimbabwean dollar note.

This year's honorees:

Scientists from the Instituto Politecnico Nacional, Baja California Sur, Mexico, for perfecting a method to collect whale snot using a remote-control helicopter. One wonders how they retrieved samples in the past.

Two Dutch researchers who discovered that symptoms of asthma can be treated with a roller-coaster ride. Did they study the Ferris wheel, fun house and tilt-a-whirl first?

Japanese and British teams that found they could use slime mold to determine the optimal routes for railroad tracks.

New Zealand scientists who demonstrated that, on icy footpaths in wintertime, people slip and fall less often if they wear socks on the outside of their shoes. It was reported that trial subjects did report better traction, but also reported feeling slightly ridiculous.

British researchers who confirmed the widely held belief that swearing relieves pain. They also found that people who don't normally swear benefited more than habitual potty-mouths. "Swearing is useful, but don't overdo it," they advised.

An American team that determined by experiment that microbes cling to bearded scientists.

A group including British Petroleum that disproved the old belief that oil and water don't mix. BP, of course, validated this theory in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year.

An Italian team that demonstrated mathematically that organizations would become more efficient if they promoted people at random.

Chinese and British researchers scientifically documented that fellatio in fruit bats prolongs copulation. The group, however, was prohibited from demonstrating their findings using hand puppets.

In keeping with the spirit of the awards, this year's ceremony featured the premiere of a new work called "The Bacterial Opera," about the bacteria that live on a woman's front tooth, and about that woman.

This year marked the 20th anniversary of the prizes.

The scary thing is that there were almost 7,000 nominations.

A committee had the thankless job of whittling down the list to 10 winners, according to past honoree Kees Moeliker, who won in 2003 for discovering homosexual necrophilia in mallard ducks.

It was duly noted that there are four winners from Great Britain this year. (Britain also this week produced the first real Nobelist, physicist Andre Geim, to have previously won an Ig - for levitating frogs with magnets.)

Said Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals and architect of the Ig Nobels, "The British Empire had a rough 20th century. Maybe this is the best sign that the empire is surging back to prominence."


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