Ig Nobel Prize honors silly-sounding science that can be significant

This week’s Nobel Prizes will be the most prestigious awards given to scientists this year. Last week’s Ig Nobel Prizes, on the other hand, were indisputably the funniest. They spotlighted scientists whose work walks the fine line between silly and significant — a distinction that isn’t always obvious.

This year’s winners included Donald Unger, a doctor who received the Medicine Prize for cracking the knuckles of his left hand — but not his right — for sixty years to see if the habit contributes to arthritis (it didn’t). The Chemistry Prize recognized a technique for growing diamonds from tequila, while the Physics Prize highlighted a study about why pregnant women don’t fall over that was published in Nature, one of the most prestigious journals in the scientific community.

The Ig Nobels are given out by Improbable Research, an organization that publicizes “research that makes people laugh and then think,” according to its website. The first prizes in 1991 featured a sperm bank that only accepts donations from Nobel Prize winners and studies about intelligent water and flatulence.

Silly-sounding science as often branded as frivolous and sometimes criticized as a waste of taxpayer money. In last year’s presidential race, for example, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin attacked spending money on a particular scientific study. “These dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good,” she said in an Oct. 24 speech in Pittsburgh. “Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France.”

The problem with this perspective, said Marc Abrahams, originator of the Ig Nobels, is that important science often sounds strange. Palin’s fruit flies, for example, are pests that, according to U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson of California, pose a large threat to the U.S. olive industry. Fruit flies are also an essential genetic tool used to understand and develop treatments for medical conditions ranging from Huntington’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease to aging and diabetes.

“A lot of things we now call breakthroughs were once considered pretty crazy,” said Abrahams.

Consider the peculiar case of the “Frog Dancing-Master.” That was the mocking title given to Luigi Galvani, an 18th century Italian physicist who used a static electricity generator to make dissected frog legs twitch. These experiments were the first to reveal that the muscles of living organisms are controlled by electric impulses that Galvani called “animal electricity” — a finding that is one of the cornerstones of modern physiology and caused his name to be immortalized in the verb “galvanize.”

Consider also a recent winner of the Ig Nobel, mathematician Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan of Harvard University. In 2007 he and his colleague Enrique Cerda Villablanca of the Universidad de Santiago de Chile received the Physics prize for studying how sheets become wrinkled, research published in the scientific journal Physical Review Letters.

“Everyday physics is interesting by definition,” says Reinhardt Shuhmann, the managing editor of the journal. “It’s a good way of keeping the non-physics population interested in science.”

And wrinkling sheets aren’t just a problem for persnickety housekeepers. Understanding how things wrinkle is an important not only for combating aging skin, but for engineering emerging technologies like nanotubes and ultra-thin films.

Mahadevan’s research is also considered important by the MacArthur Foundation, which in September awarded him a strings-free check for $500,000 to support his studies — a prestigious fellowship also known as a “genius grant.”

The take-away message of last weekg Nobels — which recognized bacteria from giant panda feces that reduces kitchen refuse and a bra that doubles as a gas mask — may have been that only the hindsight of history can separate the joke from the genius.

Devin Powell reports for Inside Science News Service.

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