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IGNOBEL

Alexey Eliseev/ANNALS OF IMPROBABLE RESEARCH

At the 2007 Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, Medicine Prize winners Dan Meyer (with sword in throat) and Dr. Brian Witcombe take the prize for conducting a study on the medical side effects of sword swallowing. Meyer will make an appearance at the Ig Nobel event this week in Chicago.


Science that's worth a laugh. No joke

by Melissa Suran
Feb 10, 2009


IGNOBEL2

 Courtesy Theo Gray

Theo Gray's periodic table table, worthy of an Ig Nobel Prize.

Yes, a hamster can recover more quickly from jetlag after taking Viagra. And yes, according to Murphy's Law, toast falls most of the time buttered side down. Well, you might have guessed the latter but the scientific accuracy of both statements comes to posterity compliments of the Ig Nobel Prizes.

While many scientists take their research seriously, a select few find their work something to laugh at. Out of those competitors, only 10 "discoveries" a year can win an Ig Nobel Prize (read that “ignoble”), an award given to advancements that are funny as well as factual.

The science of sword swallowing and the operatic romance of Atom and Eve will be part of this year's Ig Nobel session. Join the fun Friday at the public event coming to Chicago as part of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

The tradition of Ig Nobel has kept people laughing for the last 19 years, said Marc Abrahams, founder of the award. “Improbable Research” is how Abrahams answers his phone as editor of the Annals of Improbable Research.

“It always feels like, at any moment, some grown up will tell us to stop this and go home but no one ever does,” said Abrahams, who is also editor of the science humor magazine, The Annals of Improbable Research.

Submissions for the award range from interesting to downright bizarre. Abrahams said the list of memorable winners is endless.

“There’s [the winner] who achieved the world record for the fastest way to ignite a barbecue and did it using liquid oxygen,” Abrahams said. “The side effect is that the barbecue disappears pretty quickly.”

Enron won an economics award in 2002 for creative accounting by “adapting the use of imaginary numbers in the business world.” The Enron nomination came from outside the company. Karaoke won a peace award in 2004 for uniting people around the world.

Abrahams said he receives approximately 7,000-10,000 submissions per year (most of which are destined to fail) for an "Ig." There are only two criteria to qualify for the award – make people laugh and then make them think.  Submissions can't be purely silly and Abrahams said many in the science community take them very seriously.

“At the Ig Nobel ceremony, we have Nobel laureates handing out the prizes,” Abrahams said.

Theo Gray won an Ig in 2002 for building a periodic table table. Winning the award helped boost his career.

“Because of the Ig Nobel Prize, PopSci.com called me up (in 2003) and asked me if I wanted to write a column,” said Gray, who is also releasing his new book, “Mad Science,” later this year. “Five years of collected columns wouldn’t have existed if it weren’t for his award.”

Gray’s award-winning piece is a handcrafted wooden table, featuring a square devoted to each element. Almost every square has a piece of the corresponding element embedded into it – except for radioactive elements that would probably kill everyone in the room.

Dan Meyer, who holds the world record for swallowing swords under water and has three Guinness World Records under his belt, will also present his cutting-edge work on Friday. In 2007, Meyer and Brian Witcombe received an Ig for a paper published about the medical effects of sword swallowing.

“One result of the study was that sword swallowers, because they are careful, don’t have too many injuries while sword swallowing,” said Meyer.

Meyer said there are only a few dozen sword swallowers in the world.

Because Meyer is also the chief executive director of Sword Swallowers Association International, he has an extensive database of these performers, dating back to the 1800s. Only 29 people have died of sword swallowing injuries that he knows of. Of course, Meyer plans on showing off his techniques on Friday as well.

So what could be more entertaining than explosive elements and sword swallowing?

Each year, a professional opera company performs a mini-opera in honor of the event and a favorite is coming to Chicago. 

“One of the best is 'Atom and Eve,' a love story about a beautiful woman chemist and an oxygen atom – they have some difficulties to overcome,” Abrahams said. “It’s always fun to see how the opera company will deal with this visual opera.”

Genevieve Thiers, who will perform the part of Eve, agrees.

“I have to fall in love with an atom, and I am nearly six feet tall,” Thiers said. “One would say there is a bit of a height difference to overcome in our relationship.”

With its operas and imaginative research, Ig Nobel may seem surreal, but Abrahams said that’s the beauty of it.

“That’s a theme with this stuff, science magic,” Abrahams said. “People who encounter this stuff for the first time…it takes them a while to actually believe what they see, that these people up there actually do these things.”

For more information about the event, visit http://improbable.com/