I was mulling this year's funny Ig Nobel Awards when a startling announcement pinballed around the internet. "Holy mother of God," tweeted Rosanne Cash, "Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize."
My wife shouted the news from the basement. "No way!" I called back. "Are you sure it's not DeLillo?" It seemed improbable that a writer of pop songs, even one as estimable as Dylan, would join such writers of novels as Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and Toni Morrison as a Nobel literary laureate. But there it was from Sweden: "The Nobel Prize in Literature 2016 was awarded to Bob Dylan for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."
Within a matter of hours, commentary flooded the internet. Most was as ebullient as a Bernie Sanders rally. Some literati groused. So did Garrison Keillor. But The New York Times published encomiums quoting Harvard scholars. I was attracted to a post on the PEN America website by Porochista Khakpour: "Every year when the news of the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature comes in, the homework I assign my students is select readings from the writer. Today was tough. I know Bob Dylan has books—that neither I nor anyone I know has read—but he was chosen for his songs. So what's a liberal arts college professor to do?" The rhetorical question evoked my own classroom experience—a struggle to interest students in the synthesis of word and music in Paul Simon's "The Sound of Silence."
I remember the first time I heard Dylan's raspy voice singing the 1960s anthem, "Blowin' in the Wind," but I don't remember hearing Petra Mayer praise Fredrik Sjöberg's book on NPR. But damned if he didn't win the 2016 Ig Nobel Literature Prize "for his three-volume autobiographical work about the pleasures of collecting flies that are dead and flies that are not yet dead." Mayer said, "It's a memoir by a Swedish entomologist who lives on a tiny island—but it sort of defies summary, because you read it and he's so funny and he's so observant and his wit is so dry, you want to go hunting flies with him."
So goes the Ig Nobels. Now 26 years old, they are sourced in the Harvard University campus. The annual award ceremony evokes the irreverent theatrics of such other Harvard satirists as the Lampoon and Hasty Pudding Club. That the Ig Nobels are presented by "genuine, genuinely bemused" Nobel laureates redeems the event from low comedy.
"The Ig Nobel awards are arguably the highlight of the scientific calendar," wrote Helen Pilcher in Nature. "The prizes, which are the wayward son of the more righteous Nobels, are supposed to reward research that makes people laugh, then think." So keep "laugh, then think" uppermost as you read this year's batch of Ig Nobels:
The Reproduction Prize went to an Egyptian, the late Ahmed Shafik, for his study of how the sex lives of rats were affected by the wearing of either polyester, cotton or wool trousers, and for conducting similar tests with human males. For those with a scientific curiosity, rats in polyester pants had less sex less than those wearing cotton and wool.
"Assessing the perceived personalities of rocks, from a sales and marketing perspective" earned the prize in economics for researchers in New Zealand and the U.K. They tested the Aaker Five-Dimensional Model of Brand Personality—sincerity, excitement, competence, sophistication, ruggedness—on rocks.
Why do white-haired horses repel blood-sucking horseflies? Why are dragonflies attracted to polished black tombstones? Answering those questions was the basis of the physics Ig Nobel.
Germans claimed both the Chemistry Prize and the Medicine Prize. Researchers found that an itch on the left side of your body can be relieved by looking in a mirror and scratching your right side and vice versa. The honors in chemistry were accorded to scandal-plagued Volkswagen, "for solving the problem of excessive automobile pollution emissions by automatically, electromechanically producing fewer emissions whenever the cars are being tested."
Four of five Canadian and American researchers traveled to Cambridge, Mass., to receive the Peace Prize at the Sept. 22 ceremony. They were honored "for their scholarly study called 'On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit.'" Pseudo-profound bullshit was defined as "seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous (e.g. Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena.)"
Two Brits shared the Biology Prize: "Charles Foster, for living in the wild as—at different times—a badger, an otter, a deer, a fox and a bird; and Thomas Thwaites, for creating prosthetic extensions of his limbs that allowed him to keep company with goats."
The Psychology Prize honored the work of six researchers who asked 1,000 liars how often they lied, and for deciding whether or not to believe the answers. The Perception Prize went to two Japanese scientists for their investigation into "whether things look different when you bend over and view them between your legs." It turns out that perception of size and distance is affected.
If you doubt these Ig Nobels measure up to the "laugh, then think" criterion, consider how many guys laughed at rats in pants and then checked the labels on their underwear.
The Nobels are never funny, but they do draw attention to deep thinking. Critics say the annual awards are anachronistic, that the categories need to be updated by adding disciplines like ecology. They are probably encouraged by the Swedish Academy's choice of Dylan over laureates-in-waiting Don DeLillo and Philip Roth—evidence that the times, they are a changin'.
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