Ig Nobel prizes: laugh first, think later

The quirky Ig Nobel prizes honoring some of the world's funniest if not the most practical academic research will be handed out Thursday night at Harvard University during ceremonies that will include help from actual Nobel laureates.

The theme this year is chemistry, but that doesn't really restrict which entries might win, judging from research that has claimed Ig Nobels in the past.

For instance, last year the prize for medicine went to a Netherlands researcher who discovered that riding roller coasters alleviates asthma symptoms. The prize for engineering went to an international team "for perfecting a method to collect whale snot using a remote-control helicopter."


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While the awards may not seem important to some, they apparently are to winners of Nobel Prizes in various disciplines; eight (who have won for chemistry, physics, economics and physiology or medicine) will help pass out the Ig Nobels.

One Ig Nobel laureate (Andre Geim, a 2000 winner in physics for levitating a frog in a magnetic field) went on to win a Nobel Prize 10 years later for his discovery of two-dimensional grapheme matrices that can be used for improved flexible touchscreens.

Another long-time participant in the Ig Nobles ceremony, Roy Glauber, is also a Nobel Prize winner. For years Glauber has been the Ig Nobel's Keeper of the Broom, the official in charge of sweeping paper airplanes off the stage. (You have to see it.) In 2005 he won a Nobel Prize in physics for work on the quantum theory of optical coherence.

The ceremony Thursday night will include a section called the 24/7 lectures, each of which is delivered "by one of the world's great thinkers." The lecturer has 24 seconds to describe a technical idea and follows that up with a seven-word plain-language summary.

In 2009, Paul Krugman, a Nobel laureate in economics, delivered the following 24-second lecture: "Given decentralized constrained optimization by maximizing agents with well-defined convex objective functions and/or convex production functions, engaging in exchange and production with free disposal, leads, in the absence of externalities, market power, and other distortions, there exists an equilibrium characterized by Pareto optimality."

The seven-word plain language description: "Greedy people, competing, make the world go round."

In his New York Times blog the next day, he acknowledged that it wasn't until after his presentation that he realized the seven-word description was actually eight words. "Let's chalk it up to rounding error," Krugman wrote. "Revised version, I guess, drops the word 'competing.'"

This year's ceremony - the 21st 1st Annual Ig Nobel prize ceremony - is being Webcast Sept. 29 starting at 7:30 p.m. Eastern.

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