Monday, January 11, 2010

Absurd Research? There's a Prize for That

We've all heard of the Nobel Prize, and not just their recently-marginalized Peace Prize. The Nobel committee - and various other award committees, professions, and agencies around the world - exist to recognize scientists, writers, researchers, inventors, and other contributors to society for things that supposedly make our lives better.

However, we've also heard about research conducted on subjects that seem either implausible, morally-objectionable, superfluous, or downright silly. And guess what: there's a prize for them, too!

One of my cousins in Finland has turned me on to the Ig Nobel Prize, which has been awarded since 1991 by a consortium including the Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students, the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association, and the Harvard Computer Society.

According to their website, the purpose for the Ig Nobel Prize is to "honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative, and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology."

I'm not sure how much "thinking" is going on with the winners of the Ig Nobel Prize, but there's plenty to laugh about. For example, winners in 2009 included British veterinary scientists who proved cows with names give more milk than those who don't. Who sat around for weeks coming up with the idea to study cows with names?

How about these award-winning studies:

  • American scientists won for their study of the reasons why pregnant women don't tip over. Has anybody ever TRIED to tip over a pregnant woman? Is that something expectant parents do as a pastime - play 'let's tip over the new mommy'? Or is that something related to the way pregnant women try to sit down and get up from an armless chair?
  • Bank executives from Iceland won the economics prize for proving that small banks can quickly become big banks, and vice-versa - all while spinning their national economy out of control. So, did they actually TRY to ruin their economy to prove a point, or was the proof of the corollary just a happy coincidence for their now-suffering country? And did they really need to prove that small banks can become big banks? Doesn't any decent business school already teach that?

Although the value of this type of research still eludes me, I have to admit that it takes a creative inventor to conceive of creating a bra that also serves as a gas mask (see photo above). Assuming the wearer takes showers regularly.

And I have to ask: who pays for these types of research projects? Don't sponsors get upset when their projects get lampooned by winning? Do scientists actually set out to win? Apparently, the British government has complained about all of the Ig Nobel prizes awarded to English scientists.

Still, proponents of the Ig Nobel Prize claim that profound discoveries can come from the most mundane - and silly - of research. After all, some Japanese biologists discovered panda excrement can help eliminate 90% of kitchen waste.

Don't laugh - a commercial product featuring the pandas', um, contribution could be coming soon to a store near you!

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