But living within seven miles of Harvard University has its advantages, and the chance to attend the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony is certainly one of them. Held every September, the prizes are, in the organizers’ words, “awarded for achievements that first make people LAUGH and then make them THINK.” Actual Nobel Laureates, academics and researchers from across the disciplines, and non-academes alike descend upon the ornate Sanders Theater to laud published research that happens to be funny.
The theme for this year’s awards and the word for the audience to hoot and holler at (a la Pee Wee’s Playhouse), was “uncertainty”. A lot of us are feeling a lot of that these days. Accordingly, much of the ceremony left us scratching our heads, but in a good way.
Early in the evening The Fluid Dynamics prize went to the author who posed the question: “Can cats be both a solid and a liquid?” with his paper “On the Rheology of Cats.” We’ve all seen cats of the internet Cirque de Soleil themselves to fit into the most unlikely places, but author Marc-Antoine Fardin won this distinction by taking his curiosity that much further, to see whether cats can flow like liquids.
According to the researchers awarded the Ig Nobel “Peace” prize, playing the digeridoo can alleviate sleep apnea symptoms. Get it? Peace? While it certainly sounds like a safe and non-invasive therapy, I’m not convinced listening to the digeridoo is preferable to listening to snoring (sorry digeridoo fans).
Other prizewinning studies included a look at the neural factors that might contribute to disgust with cheese, why old men have big ears, and the effects of a vaginal Ipod-like music player on babies in utero (enough said).
Surrounding the award presentation was the usual circus of activities: paper airplane throwing at a human target, a three-act opera (this year’s drama centered on being promoted to your level of incompetency) and an 8 year old girl repeating “Please stop, I’m bored.” to curtail long acceptance speeches, among other shenanigans.
So, why the uneasiness? It occurred to me that in a time when peer reviewed science and academic research is being questioned, discounted and/or de-funded, maybe it’s a little risky to giggle at academic research. When we’re earnestly trying to defend science and research is it safe to have a sense of humor about it?
The answer, of course, is yes. And, we must. Not least among many reasons is that one of the aims of the awards is to spark interest and curiosity in research. I’d say driving the public interest in science is an important thing to do right now. While on the surface the prize winning research may seem ridiculous, behind it there are important ideas and researchers brave enough to explore them. Let’s not forget that there has been an Ig Nobel winner who went on to win a “real” Nobel.
Beyond that, we have to have the humility to laugh at ourselves no matter the circumstance. And it’s just good fun.
After all, how many times in life can you say that Physics Nobel prize winner Roy Glauber swept up your paper airplanes?
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