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Nobel Laureates show their lighter side

October 7, 2005 By Steve Nadis This article courtesy of Nature News.

Distinguished scientists gather in Boston for silliness awards.

Unlike other days at Harvard University, the first Thursday in October is a time when levity overtakes gravity, irreverence prevails over reason, and the flight of paper airplanes is actively encouraged. It is time, in other words, for the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, the fifteenth of which was held last night before a boisterous crowd in Harvard's Sanders Theatre.

Ten prizes were awarded to winners from a dozen countries. Some of the winners had travelled from as far as Australia, Japan, and New Zealand to take home the 'Ig', a prize devoted to science that 'first makes you laugh, then makes you think'.

Four genuine Nobel Laureates, including Robert Wilson, winner of the Physics Nobel in 1978 for the co-discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation, were on hand to lend the proceedings an aura of dignity, and to show that distinguished scientists are not above singing '99 bottles of beer on the wall'.

Wilson also served as the prize in the 'Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobel-Laureate' contest. "With any luck, he'll help one of you discover your own big bang," the announcer noted.

And the winner is..

Of the Ig Nobel Prizes, the Biology Prize went to an international team for smelling and cataloguing the 'odorous secretions' of 131 species of stressed-out frogs. In work that earned them the Chemistry Prize, two scholars from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis showed that a person can swim as fast in syrup as in water (see ' Swimming in syrup is as easy as water' ).

European investigators secured the Fluid Dynamics Prize by estimating the pressures required for successful defecation in penguins. Gregg Miller of Oak Grove, Missouri, won the prize in medicine for inventing Neuticles, artificial replacement testicles for dogs, which are available in three sizes, and three degrees of firmness. And John Mainstone of Australia's University of Queensland accepted the Physics Prize for the 'Pitch Drop Experiment'. This experiment, which was started in 1927 by the prize's co-winner, shows that an ostensibly solid tar derivative can behave like a liquid, forming drops at the rate of about one every nine years.

Mainstone is a great believer in the Ig event, and that's not just because of the award he captured this year. Science has become a "rat race", largely due to the pressure to compete for grant money, claims the retired physicist, and it's important to get a break from that sometimes. "When we cease to see the amusing side of science, it's all over."

Special tribute was also paid at the ceremony to Harvard physicist Roy Glauber, a winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Physics. Before taking this prestigious prize, Glauber was better known at Harvard for his services as 'official sweeper of detritus' (detritus that includes the paper airplanes lobbed in by the audience) for the past ten Ig ceremonies.

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