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Ig Nobel prizes celebrate a different kind of science
By Carolyn Y. Johnson, Globe Staff
CAMBRIDGE --The winners are in: The chemistry prize goes to scientists who researched Coca Cola's ability to kill sperm. The biology award is for research proving that fleas on dogs jump higher than fleas on cats; and the prize for medicine goes to the enterprising economist who found that expensive fake pills work better than cheap ones.
Those awards and seven others were handed out tonight by Nobel laureates at the 18th annual Ig Nobel prizes, an irreverent event that showcases the humorous side of science.
The event, which comes just a few days before the real Nobel Prize announcements start, was also a reminder that science, often seen as important but impenetrable to people without a Ph.D., is, fundamentally, about understanding the world. There is room in the discipline for probing cellular mechanisms and building an obstacle course for fleas, to better understand and control them.
"A lot of people have the impression that anything to do with science is a very somber thing -- so serious it has to be somber," said Marc Abrahams , editor of the science humor magazine, Annals of Improbable Research , that produces the event, held at Harvard's Sanders Theatre. "Most scientists would feel that's not really what life is like for them."
Benoit Mandelbrot, the famous mathematician who invented fractal geometry, put it this way: "Scientists accept a life that is extremely constrained and often filled with strife. But many are very human and treasure the rare nice occasions to act as silly kids," he wrote in an e-mail. The 83-year-old Mandelbrot's contribution to this year's Ig Nobels? He was invited to be the prize in the Ig Nobel's win-a-date contest.
The Ig Nobels ham it up to the extreme. When speeches go on for more than a minute, an eight-year-old named Miss Sweetie Poo is there to declare "Please stop. I'm bored," and usher the garrulous prize-winners off the stage.
But the prizes are awarded to scientists for actual work they have done, not planned comedy stunts. And it isn't just something for the biologists in the back of the class to enjoy at the expense of real science. Real Nobelists help pick the winners, and hand out the prizes.
Over the 18 years, the Ig Nobel award has even become something to covet.
"I've won quite a lot of academic awards; I can't think of one that makes me happier than this one," said Dan Ariely , a Duke University economist and author of the book "Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions," who said his deserving work has been passed over year after year and is elated to finally get an Ig Nobel.
Ariely's Ig Nobel-winning work demonstrates the secret behind many of the Ig Nobel-winning scientists: that hidden in the humorous work is a legitimate scientific point.
Using Craigslist, Ariely recruited volunteers for a study, and printed fake brochures describing an invented pain-killer that was actually just a placebo pill. Some were told the drug was expensive; others were told it was cheap. The subjects were given electric shocks before and after they took the pill. Those who got the pricey fake medicine reported a bigger reduction in pain than those with the cheaper fake.
The experiment, published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association, suggested that marketing and packaging of a drug may play a role in its effects.
Others noted that while their work may seem wacky to outsiders, it isn't all that different from normal work in their field.
Astolfo Gomes de Mello Araujo , a Brazilian archaeologist, won a prize for his work examining the effect of an armadillo burrowing at an archaeological site. He said in a written note that he was pleased to win the Ig Nobel, but "it was also kind of a surprise, since our work does not depart so much from experimental archaeology done by colleagues."
Others received the prize for work that deviates from their usual research. Deborah J. Anderson, a professor at Boston University School of Medicine who studies HIV, shared the chemistry prize for work she did in the 1980s showing the efficacy of various formulations of Coke as a spermicide. Anderson's lab found Diet Coke was most effective at stopping sperm, but cautioned that it wasn't an effective way to stop pregnancies. (She said that for years after her work was published as a letter in the New England Journal of Medicine, she would find copies of the article taped to soda machines on college campuses she visited.)
Other prizes ranged from studies on the effect the sound of crunching has on the perception of the crispiness of a Pringle, to an examination of tips collected by professional lap dancers.
David Sims took home the literature prize for his study, "You Bastard: A Narrative Exploration of the Experience of Indignation within Organizations." Sims, a professor of organizational behavior at the Cass Business School in London, grappled with the little-studied, but very-familiar, experience of feeling perturbed at work.
He is honored, he said, to be among the winners this year.
"The whole notion behind it -- make people laugh and then make them think -- is such a core part of the whole educational learning process," Sims said. "What a good idea to have people in the scientific community having a bit of humor about what they're doing."
The Ig Informal lectures will take place on Saturday, Oct. 4 at 1 p.m. on the MIT campus, in room 10-250.
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