Monday, October 01, 2012

Science With a Snicker

It's awards season once again, a fact that is of keen interest mainly to the tuxedo rental business and fawning TV field reporters.

This column will let others wallow in the self-congratulatory excesses of the Oscars, the Emmys, the Tonys, the Golden Globes and all the rest. We haven't enjoyed an awards show since Donald Duck hosted the Academy Awards in 1958.

Still, there is one awards presentation that draws our rapt attention. That would be the Ig Noble Prizes, staged at this time each year at Harvard University by the editors of a not-to-be-taken-too-seriously group known as the Annals of Improbable Research.

They are awarded for "research that makes people laugh, and then think" and are often presented by actual Nobel laureates.

Past winners include a team from UC Davis for exploring why woodpeckers don't get headaches; the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, for demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with a tank; researchers who calculated the number of photographs you must take to (almost) ensure that nobody in a group photo will have their eyes closed; a study that determined that lap dancers get higher tips when they are ovulating; and a woman from MIT who invented an alarm clock that runs away and hides, repeatedly, thus ensuring that people do get out of bed, and thus theoretically adding many productive hours to the workday.

The awards know no bounds. The prize for mathematics was once awarded to to the Southern Baptist Church of Alabama for their county-by-county estimate of how many Alabama citizens will go to hell if they don't repent.

This year's honorees carried on the lofty traditions established by past winners.

In the field of psychology, Anita Eerland and Rolf Zwaan and Tulio Guadalupe, all from the Netherlands, won for their study "Leaning to the Left Makes the Eiffel Tower Seem Smaller."

Just in time for the elections, Kazutaka Kurihara and Koji Tsukada of Japan won the acoustics award for creating the Speech Jammer, a machine that disrupts a person's speech by making them hear their own spoken words at a very slight delay.

In neuroscience, Craig Bennett, Abigail Baird, Michael Miller, and George Wolford of the U.S.A. demonstrated that brain researchers, by using complicated instruments and simple statistics, can see meaningful brain activity anywhere - even in a dead salmon.

The prize for literature went to U.S. Government General Accountability Office, for issuing a report about reports about reports that recommend the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports.

Joseph Keller (U.S.A.) and Raymond Goldstein (U.S.A. and U.K.), Patrick Warren, and Robin Ball (U.K.) won the physics prize for calculating the balance of forces that shape and move the hair in a human ponytail.

Rouslan Krechetnikov (U.S.A., Russia, Canada) and Hans Mayer (U.S.A.) studied the dynamics of liquid-sloshing, to learn what happens when a person walks while carrying a cup of coffee (it spills), thereby securing the fluid dynamics honors.

Frans de Waal (the Netherlands and U.S.A.) and Jennifer Pokorny (U.S.A.) secured the anatomy award for discovering that chimpanzees can identify other chimpanzees individually from seeing photographs of their rear ends.

In medicine, Emmanuel Ben-Soussan and Michel Antonietti (France) won for advising doctors who perform colonoscopies how to minimize the chance that their patients will explode. For which we can all be eternally grateful.

So what muse inspires this kind of research?

Joseph Keller, the soft-spoken, white-haired mathematician behind the pony tail research, explained, "I used to jog around the Stanford campus and saw many young ladies running," Keller said. "Their ponytails swayed side to side . . . even though the head was only going up and down. Why did the ponytail go side to side?"

"It turns out that it could go up and down," Keller, a professor of applied mathematics at Stanford, explained. "But that's unstable if the jogging frequency is twice the pendulum frequency of the ponytail," which is usually the case for humans. "Because runners all tend to pound the pavement at roughly the same frequency and their hair is roughly the same length, all ponytails sway from side to side."

Another great riddle solved.

As they say at the conclusion of the ceremonies, "If you didn't win a prize - and especially if you did - better luck next year!"

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