At last night's 18th annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, webcast live from Harvard University, awards were handed out for a number of scientific achievements that--in accordance with the Ig Nobel motto--first make people LAUGH, then make them THINK.
Amidst the usual Ig Nobel antics--including a mini-opera called "Redundancy, Again," a Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobelist contest and 24-second technical lectures on topics from fractals to cryptography--prizes were given for research demonstrating that slime molds can solve puzzles, expensive fake medicine is more effective than cheap fake medicine, and the fleas that live on dogs jump higher than fleas that live on cats. The Peace Prize, fittingly, went to the The Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology and the citizens of Switzerland for adopting the legal principle that plants have dignity.
But once again, there was no Ig Nobel for particle physics.
We would not want to suggest that the winners of this year's Physics Prize were unworthy. Far from it: Two San Diego researchers were honored for a paper entitled "Spontaneous Knotting of an Agitated String," in which they proved mathematically that "heaps of string or hair or almost anything else will inevitably tangle themselves up in knots."
But we have to ask: Is this exclusion of an vital field of science--one that attempts to discover the origins and secrets of the universe itself, for cryin' out loud--not a disgrace?
(Or is it, on further reflection, a good thing? Just saying.)
For those who have not followed the history of this prestigious award, here's a list of recent physics winners:
2005: John Mainstone and the late Thomas Parnell of the University of Queensland, Australia, for patiently conducting an experiment that began in the year 1927 -- in which a glob of congealed black tar has been slowly, slowly dripping through a funnel, at a rate of approximately one drop every nine years.
2003: Jack Harvey, John Culvenor, Warren Payne, Steve Cowley, Michael Lawrance, David Stuart, and Robyn Williams of Australia, for their irresistible report "An Analysis of the Forces Required to Drag Sheep over Various Surfaces."
2001: David Schmidt of the University of Massachusetts for his partial solution to the question of why shower curtains billow inwards.
In fact we had to dig back 10 years to find a prize even remotely related to high-energy physics:
1998: Deepak Chopra of The Chopra Center for Well Being, La Jolla, California, for his unique interpretation of quantum physics as it applies to life, liberty, and the pursuit of economic happiness [via his books "Quantum Healing," "Ageless Body, Timeless Mind," etc.]