Thursday, October 9, 2008

2008 Ig Nobel Prize Winners Announced!

Ok. I actually wrote up a beautiful post on this last night, but for some reason, Blogger ate my post just as I tried to submit it. I got frustrated and just decided to go to bed, rather than try posting again. So what follows is roughly what I would have published last night.


So are you familiar with the Ig Nobel Prizes? No, these are not to be confused with the much more stuffy Nobel Prizes, which are also granted around this time of year. The Igs were founded in the early nineties to highlight research which (for whatever reason) either could never be repeated, or should never be repeated. (A good example of this is the infamous pitch drop experiment at the University of Queensland, Australia, which measures the viscosity of a blob of bitumen tar, by letting it flow through a funnel and drip into a beaker below. This experiment, which has been running since 1927, has so far produced eight drips--about one every nine years, give or take. It won an Ig in 2005.)

Well, as the Ig Nobels started becoming more famous, they shifted their mission slightly: now their intention is to highlight research that "makes you laugh, then makes you think." I don't know how much this research actually makes me think, but every year, there are at least a couple that make me laugh out loud.

The list of this year's winners is here. I blogged about the Igs last year, at this post--check it out if you want to read my earlier thoughts.

These are a few of my favorites from this year:

NUTRITION PRIZE. Massimiliano Zampini of the University of Trento, Italy and Charles Spence of Oxford University, UK, for electronically modifying the sound of a potato chip to make the person chewing the chip believe it to be crisper and fresher than it really is.

Now, explain something to me: how exactly does one "electronically [modify] the sound of a potato chip"?

Now, I suppose it would be possible to wire up your hungry friend with a wireless hands-free microphone to pick up the crunch sound, and pipe its signal through some kind of electric filter, and then broadcast it to an in-ear monitor that he happens to be wearing. That might work. And depending on the kind of electronic filter you send the sound through, you could turn mealtime into a truly psychedelic experience. But I'm not immediately sure how you could turn this into a marketable product. Any ideas? :-)

ARCHAEOLOGY PRIZE. Astolfo G. Mello Araujo and José Carlos Marcelino of Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil, for measuring how the course of history, or at least the contents of an archaeological dig site, can be scrambled by the actions of a live armadillo.

Now I loved this one. Here's the trouble: archaeologists determine the age of artifacts in part from the layer in the tell from which it was excavated. Artifacts further down are generally older than the ones above. Unless, that is, the site has been inhabited by burrowing armadillos. Armadillos build burrows that are often twenty feet or more deep, and they seem particularly to like these old tells. But in the process of building their burrows, they tend to move old artifacts up, down, and all over the place. It appears, if I understand these Brazilians properly, that our understanding of the pre-Columbian history of Mesoamerica has been pretty well thwarted by all these armadillos scrambling the evidence. Personally, I find that idea pretty funny. Apparently the Ig committee concurred.

BIOLOGY PRIZE. Marie-Christine Cadiergues, Christel Joubert, and Michel Franc of Ecole Nationale Veterinaire de Toulouse, France for discovering that the fleas that live on a dog can jump higher than the fleas that live on a cat.

As with so many of these winning research entries, the funny part is when you try to imagine the kinds of experiments they had to come up with to test these things....

MEDICINE PRIZE. Dan Ariely of Duke University (USA), Rebecca L. Waber of MIT (USA), Baba Shiv of Stanford University (USA), and Ziv Carmon of INSEAD (Singapore) for demonstrating that high-priced fake medicine is more effective than low-priced fake medicin..

Now this one actually is thought provoking. Suppose that more expensive fake medicines work better than cheaper fake medicines. Does this extend to all medical care? And suppose that the politicians do manage to make our health care "more affordable". Does that mean it won't work as well? Hmmm....

COGNITIVE SCIENCE PRIZE. Toshiyuki Nakagaki of Hokkaido University, Japan, Hiroyasu Yamada of Nagoya, Japan, Ryo Kobayashi of Hiroshima University, Atsushi Tero of Presto JST, Akio Ishiguro of Tohoku University, and Ágotá Tóth of the University of Szeged, Hungary, for discovering that slime molds can solve puzzles.

I think that the next time I meet a slime mold, I'll hand it my Rubik's cube and see how long it takes...

But, seriously. (Or, rather, less unseriously.) They built a maze, put the slime mold at one end, and put the slime mold food at the other. (What do they eat? No, scratch that; I don't think I want to know.) The slime mold sent out "feelers" that grew all the way through the maze. And then when it found the food, all the feelers on the dead-end paths shrunk back until the slime mold only occupied the direct path from the start of the maze to the end. Not bad for a creature that doesn't even have a central nervous system--let alone a distinct cell structure.

Incidentally, the Wikipedia page on slime molds is here. I'm not sure why, but I found this page vaguely hilarious. And it wasn't just the "Slime Molds in Culture" part at the end...

PHYSICS PRIZE. Dorian Raymer of the Ocean Observatories Initiative at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, USA, and Douglas Smith of the University of California, San Diego, USA, for proving mathematically that heaps of string or hair or almost anything else will inevitably tangle themselves up in knots.

I was thinking this last one sounded familiar to me. I actually blogged about it last year, and predicted that it may be in the running for an Ig! And this year, just like last, the first thing that came into my mind when I read about it was that chapter from Jerome K. Jerome's book, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), which discussed the trouble one has keeping tow-cables straight. Amazing that, presented with the same information nearly a year later, I thought of exactly the same thing I did the first time around. Hm... I bet there's a research paper in that....

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