Thursday, October 12, 2006

Nobel and Ig Nobel

I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious. ~Albert Einstein

The cycle of announcements for the annual awarding of Nobel Prizes is underway as I write this. At the same time, the Ig Nobel prizes have also been awarded. You have probably heard of the former, but the latter may be new to you. After a look at one particular Nobel award, we'll explain the other in turn.

Nobel's Prize. Everyone knows that Alfred Nobel, having feelings of guilt over having grown rich in the explosives business, left an endowment to be used for awards for accomplishment. This endowment became a a series of prizes for significant achievement in various sciences, literature, economics, and the search for peace. Being a wannabe physicist, I'm always most interested in the prizes for physics. This year's prize went to John Mather and George Smoot for their work on the cosmic microwave background (CMB).

Now I doubt the Nobel judges read Explorations, but by amazing coincidence, I wrote a piece about this very subject, dealing with the discovery of the CMB by Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias, who received the Prize in 1978. As I noted, no one was given an award for predicting the existence of the CMB due to a controversy concerning precedence.

As you can imagine, cosmologists who favored the Big Bang theory, upon learning of the Wilson-Penzias discovery were all jumping up and down in glee and shouting, “Yippee-skip!” Okay, cosmologists very rarely jump up and down and practically never yell things like “Yippee-skip”, but, however they expressed it, they were overjoyed for this significant piece of evidence supporting the Big Bang. As time went on and more data came in, the scientists' joy became tempered somewhat. According to the theory, the CMB should be all around us and be very uniform. Trouble was, the CMB was too uniform.

Soon after the Big Bang, the universe was a hot mass of plasma. If that was a completely uniform or smooth mass, there would be no reason for the gas to begin to clump together to form stars and galaxies, which would mean that there would be no planets, people, or chocolate chip cookies, either. Therefore, the observational community started looking very hard for any discontinuities in the CMB.

Unfortunately, Earth-based observations are difficult because the atmosphere, while being a wonderful thing for all us air-breathers, tends to be a royal pain for making delicate observations. What was needed was a satellite. Enter George Smoot and John Mather with the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE).

When, in 1992, COBE returned its famous map of the CMB showing the predicted temperature variations, Smoot said that it was like “seeing God.” Mather likened it to finding the Holy Grail. Hyperbole aside, the temperature fluctuations they noted (30 millionths of a degree Kelvin and less; we're talking small here) provided another huge chunk of evidence supporting the Big Bang.

That's the stuff of a Nobel Prize.

Ig Nobel-ity. There is a magazine called The Annals of Improbable Research, which reports on slightly off-the-wall but otherwise more or less legitimate research that is constantly going on. This year's prizes were awarded recently at Harvard University for such ground-breaking research as:
  • Curing hiccups by inserting a finger into the anus (orgasms work as well and are more fun);
  • Why woodpeckers don't get headaches (spongy skulls that are like packing foam and eyeball “seat belts”);
  • Why fingernails scraping across a blackboard is so irritating (the sound is remarkably similar to chimpanzee alarm shrieks; it might be a primal thing).
That's nothing. At the Ig Nobel site, you can peruse the many winners of this not-always coveted prize. It's a wonderful look into the slightly nutty side of science.

Now, to be sure, in most cases the guys doing the research did not feel in the least nutty, although they sometimes did afterwards. Some winners don't like being included with the likes of those researching penguin pooping pressure. Most, however, seem to join in the spirit of the awards, showing up at the presentation ceremony and giving speeches ranging for the nearly serious to the very funny.

The Ig Nobel ceremony has one leg up on the other awards. It has its own Nobel Laureate, Harvard physicist Roy Glauber, to sweep up the paper airplanes traditionally thrown on stage by the audience.

Who knew Harvard had such a sense of humor?

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