Annals of Improbable Research & the #Ig Nobel# awards
Date: Monday, August 16, 2004 @ 22:25:32 GMT
Batty boffin - August 16, 2004
The man who celebrates the world's most bizarre research projects knows a bad idea when he sees one, writes science reporter Stephen Cauchi.
Marc Abrahams knows all about feline reactions to bearded men. Why incompetence is bliss. And whether people chew delicious food faster than they chew distasteful food.
The former software developer, who is in Melbourne for National Science Week, is the world's leading expert on oddball science. Abrahams, who lives in Boston, edits the satirical journal Annals of Improbable Research, which documents real but intriguing (and often funny) scientific experiments. And, every year, he organises the "Ig Nobel" awards at Harvard University, celebrating the wackiest science of the year.
Some recent winners: three Swedish researchers who wrote a report called "Chickens Prefer Beautiful Humans"; the German scientist who demonstrated that beer froth obeys the mathematical law of exponential decay; and the American who calculated the exact odds that Mikhail Gorbachev is the Antichrist.
"When I first became editor of a science magazine, suddenly there were all kinds of people calling me up wanting to explain the wonderful things they'd done," he told The Age. "Quite a number of them said they wanted my advice about how they would win a Nobel prize. That struck me as funny because I had no idea of how to win a Nobel prize. And it was clear that, in many cases, this person was never going to win a Nobel prize."
Abrahams, 48, graduated from Harvard with a degree in applied mathematics. He worked as a software developer in the 1980s but in 1990 switched careers and became the editor of the Journal of Irreproducible Results. He started the Ig Nobels the following year, prompted by a desire to honour the hard-working eccentrics of science.
"What they've done," he said of the winners, "is so completely different to what anyone else would dream of doing. There ought to be something to say: this is different. Whether it was good or bad, it made you laugh, it made you think. That was pretty much the reason for starting the Ig Nobel prizes."
Abrahams left the Journals of Irreproducible Results in 1994 to start his own journal, The Annals of Improbable Research. The magazine’s editorial board of 50 distinguished scientists — which includes eight Nobel laureates and IQ record holder Marilyn Vos Savant — picks the 10 annual winners. The categories are slightly fluid, but generally match those of the proper Nobels — physics, chemistry, biology and humanities categories such as peace and economics.
This year's Ig Nobel's ceremony will be held at Harvard on September 30. Prizes will be presented to the winners in each of the 10 categories, and the theme of this year's ceremony will be "diet". Highlights of the night? A keynote address by Steve Penfold, a 1999 Ig Nobel prize winner who did a PhD on the sociology of Canadian doughnut shops. The world premiere of the mini-opera The Atkins Diet Opera, will actually star Nobel(not Ig Nobel)laureates and other distinguished scientists. Abrahams stresses the Ig Nobel awards are presented in goodnatured fun and are never meant to ridicule anyone. Scientists can nominate themselves, or their enemies, he says.
"It's an underhanded way of seducing people into thinking about science. Just because something is funny does not mean it's bad. But it doesn't mean it's not bad, either."
MASTERS OF MINUTIAE
The Ig Nobel awards have boasted some spectacular winners in its 13-year history, including some Australians. Last year, a group of Victorian and South Australian academics took out the physics category with their irresistible report "An Analysis of the Forces Required to Drag Sheep over Various Surfaces," published in Applied Ergonomics. And Victorian John Keogh was a worthy winner of the 2001 technology prize for patenting the wheel (helpfully granted by the Australian Patent Office,complete with innovation patent number).
But we face stiff competition from overseas. Last year’s biology winner was C.W Moeliker of the Natuurmuseum Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, who did his bit to combat rising crime by documenting the first scientifically recorded case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck.
2002 winners included two Missouri academics, with their colourful and somewhat specialised paper "The effects of preexisting inappropriate highlighting on reading comprehension".
Spaniard Eduardo Segura, meanwhile, won the hygiene award for his washing machine for cats and dogs.
In 2001, The Journal of Trauma was represented with Canadian Peter Barss' paper "Injuries Due to Falling Coconuts".
Over-enthusiastic American inventor Buck Weimer received the biology award for Under-Ease, airtight underwear with a replaceable charcoal filter that removes bad smells before they escape.
And fellow Americans Jack and Rexella Van Impe claimed an astrophysics award with their “discovery” that black holes fulfilled all the technical requirements to be the location of hell.
House of horrors
Viliumas Malinauskus of Lithuania was the Ig Nobel’s peace prize winner in 2001 with his fun-for-all-the-family amusement park, Stalin World.
And for those who tend to get too absorbed in net-surfing, American Chris Niswander won the computer science award for inventing PawSense — software that detects when a cat is walking across your computer keyboard.
The managed health-care award went to Americans George and Charlotte Blonsky, who built a patented device to aid women in giving birth — the woman is strapped on to a circular table, which is then rotated at high speed.
In 1998, Dr Mara Sidoli, of Washington, took out the literature prize after The Journal of Analytical Psychology duly published her illuminating report "Farting as a Defence Against Unspeakable Dread".
The Ig Nobels also reward those who, in the best spirit of Thomas Edison, believe failure is a key ingredient to success. The 1994 medicine prize winner "Patient X" attached automobile spark-plug wires to his lip and revved the engine to 3000 revs per minute for five minutes to try to cure himself of snakebite.
But who says all this batty boffinry isn't helpful? Medical men of mercy James F. Nolan, Thomas J. Stillwell, and John P. Sands, Jr, won in 1993 for their painstaking research report, "Acute Management of the Zipper-Entrapped Penis" (published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine).
Marc Abrahams will speak on Thursday at 6-9pm at The Age Theatrette, Melbourne Museum; 9252 6472. Free.
Off topic but couldn't help posting it ;-)