Society & Success

Odd genius? Ig Nobel Prize honours unusual research

Later on Thursday, we shall know whether or not a second Kenyan will receive the much coveted Nobel Prize.

This time around, prolific writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o is up for the literature award, with bookmakers around the world predicting that the author of such books as Weep Not Child and Petals of Blood is a serious contender for the win.

Possible winner

Early this week, the author surged forth as a possible winner, with the online betting website Ladbrokes placing him as favourite, with odds of three to one.

Born in 1938, Ngugi, a novelist and playwright, stopped writing in English for his mother tongue, Gikuyu, while held in prison in 1977.

The Nobel awards are a 115- year-old international tradition bestowed by Scandinavian committees in recognition of cultural and scientific advances.

But few people are aware that this week is also the period when other great scientific discoveries are awarded at an event that runs parallel to the Nobels.

The Ig Nobel prizes will be awarded for the 20th time to risible and thought-provoking research projects.

The prizes, awarded at a ceremony at Harvard University in Boston, were started as a spoof of the prestigious annual Nobel Prizes.

The winners of this year’s Ig Nobel Awards have been announced at Harvard University by the Annals of Improbable Research magazine.

The Ig Nobels award achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.

According to the organisers, the prizes celebrate the unusual, honour the imaginative—and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.

For instance, Alessandro Pluchino, Andrea Rapisarda and Cesare Garofalo were feted this year for demonstrating mathematically that organisations would become more efficient if promotions were made at random, providing the means for human resource managers to dodge that particular political minefield the next time appraisals are conducted.

In the engineering category, three women scooped the prize for developing a method to collect whale snot using a remote control helicopter, thus resolving a critical bottleneck that has beleaguered scientists for decades.

Nine others received an Ig Nobel for using slime mould to determine the optimal routes for railroad tracks.

In honour of the global financial crisis, the economics prize went to the executives and directors of Goldman Sachs, AIG, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, and Magnetar for creating and promoting new ways to invest money that maximise financial gain and minimise financial risk.

Aside from the more humourous subject matter, serious work goes into the research papers that are submitted to the Annals of Improbable Research, with most projects being the culmination of over 10 years of collective study.

Roller-coaster

Many of the projects, like the discovery by Simon Rietveld and Ilja van Beest that going on roller-coaster rides can alleviate asthma, carry potential to aid further investigation and in some cases, spawn useful every-day inventions.

Other discoveries, like the Ig Nobel Peace award, which was handed out to three scientists who confirmed that swearing helps relieve pain, are just interesting things to know.