published Friday, September 28th, 2012

More than humor at Ig Nobel rites

True scholars sometimes have problem finding their niche in general society. That's probably because their dogged research into topics that most other individuals would consider arcane leads to a disconnect with broader society. That portrait of the world of scholarship and research is, of course, unfair and untrue. Scholars are, for the most part, pretty normal people who happen to have very special interests. Don't believe it? Consider, then, the recent Ig Nobel Prizes.

The ceremony, held every year just weeks before the actual Nobel prizes are announced, is an event that everyone can embrace and understand. The prizes are awarded for "research that makes people laugh, and then think." This year's ceremony at Harvard University hewed to that theme. Awards were presented before a big crowd, including several Nobel laureates, though the atmosphere was far from that of the fancy-dress Nobel ceremonies in Sweden.

Indeed, some recipients shared the stage with an inflatable clownfish that randomly bumped them. Others had to cope with the SpeechJammer, a device that makes it hard for people to speak by projecting their voice back at them with a tiny delay. The SpeechJammer won this year's Ig Nobel Prize in acoustics. Apparently, there's nothing like a demonstration to prove the effectiveness of a prize winner.

A Stanford mathematician and his team won the physics Ig Nobel for research that explained why a woman's ponytail swayed side to side rather than up and down when she jogged. The Fluid Dynamics Prize went to a study that explained liquid-sloshing by learning what happens when a person walks while carrying a cup of coffee. The Literature Prize was presented to the U.S. 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." Got that?

Not all the prizes were awarded to research that most people would consider esoteric and thus easy targets for jokes or sarcasm. Some honor useful, even noble, work.

The Peace Prize, for example, was awarded to a company in Russia for converting old Russian ammunition into new diamonds. And those 50 and older who are advised to get a colonoscopy in the name of good health certainly can appreciate the work done by the 2012 recipients of the 2012 Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine.

It was awarded to a French team for developing a technique that prevents the very rare but nevertheless dangerous problem of gas explosions in the intestine during a colonoscopy. A demonstration of the technique using a human volunteer was scheduled, but a doctor, his hand already gloved for the procedure, called it off for fear of offending the audience.

Who said scholars can't have good time while they honor the always serious pursuit of knowledge?

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