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Silly Science Celebrated

Ig Nobel Prizes cite research into the weird

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 8, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- While American and British scientists are celebrating their Nobel Prize for work contemplating cell suicide, an Australian researcher captured his own award for contemplating navels.

That's because the researcher, Karl Kruszelnicki of the University of Sydney, is the 2002 Ig Nobel Prize winner in interdisciplinary research for his survey on… belly button lint. The results? Men get it more than women, and an astounding 96 percent of people with it have "innies."

Other Ig Nobel "winners" include the analysis of male genitalia in ancient statues, the invention of dog-to-human translation software, a study finding that ostriches are turned on by human farmers, and research into how your book reading is affected when a previous owner has highlighted the text. Now, not even a week after the not-so-prestigious Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, officials at Harvard University are already busy looking for next year's crop.

The work of honoring silly scientists is never done, explains Marc Abrahams, founder of the world-famous Ig Nobel Prize and editor of the Annals of Improbable Research. "We have a big pile of entries," he says. "Anything that doesn't make it one year goes into the pile for next."

The criteria? "Everything that's ever won an Ig Nobel Prize first makes people laugh and then it makes them think," Abrahams says.

Well, at least the first part is definitely true. The Ig Nobel awards, now in their 12th year, go to researchers who study the unusual, the strange, or -- in many cases -- the extremely obvious. In all cases, their studies tickle the funny bone, but presumably not on purpose.

Take Ig Nobel laureate Justin Kruger. An assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, he won in 2000 for publishing a study analyzing why some people think they're good at things but really aren't.

Kruger says the Ig Nobel Prize is a "funny award" (and he means funny peculiar, not funny ha-ha). "One doesn't really know how to evaluate it. It's clearly a dig, but it's also kind of fun," he says.

However, the award didn't change his life, personally or professionally. "I haven't lost sleep over it, but I certainly haven't gotten a raise," he says.

Abrahams agrees that winning isn't a huge coup for the honorees. "What has it done for their lives? In most cases, nothing," he says. "It's given them an opportunity to travel a terribly long distance at their own expense, and get up on stage in the most impressive and biggest theater at Harvard, where 1,200 are people are jammed into the place, throwing paper airplanes at them."

On the bright side, virtually no one becomes a winner without agreeing to accept the award, unless they happen to be dead at the time. (The Ig Nobel Prizes are not limited by time; some winning studies are decades old.)

"It's always been surprising how few people take it badly," Abrahams says. "For most potential winners, when they're selected we do check with them to make sure this would not cause them a professional problem. If it appears there's any chance of that happening, we don't give it to them."

The researchers who do agree to be honored come from a wide variety of fields of academic endeavor, from economists to social scientists to physicists.

This year, the winning studies included the art of estimating the surface area of elephants, the translation of dog-speak into human language, and the symmetry (or lack thereof) of scrotums in both men and ancient sculptures.

A special award went to a long list of disgraced companies, including Enron and WorldCom, for "adapting the mathematical concept of imaginary numbers for use in the business world."

Why bother honoring such odd research? The motivations are, well, noble.

"A lot of what's going on underneath is the Ig Nobels is about getting more people a little bit curious about science," Abrahams says. "They're all funny, and when you look into some of them, you might decide 'That's horrible.' But you might find yourself deciding that others are really wonderful."

What To Do

Learn everything you ever wanted to know about the Ig Nobel Prize, including a list of this year's winners, at the Annals of Improbable Research.

Admit it. You're curious about the belly button lint survey. Read its results here.

SOURCES: Marc Abrahams, editor, Annals of Improbable Research, and founder, Ig Nobel Prize, Cambridge, Mass.; Justin Kruger, Ph.D., assistant professor, psychology, University of Illinois, Champaign
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