Ignoble Notables | Opinion | Salt Lake City Weekly

Ignoble Notables 

Three Utah scientists honored with this year's other peace prize.

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The interlude between harvest and Hanukkah leaves me cold. How is it possible to appreciate a season that valorizes shopping, eating and electioneering? Only the occasional Indian summer day—with its gold-leaf aspens displayed under azure skies—offers respite. Otherwise, the best to be said of the tedious, autumnal months is that they serve as backdrop for winners getting their due.

City Weekly's 32nd Best of Utah edition was published on Nov. 18, on the heels of the Booker Prize and the National Book Awards. And by then, the 2021 Nobel and Pulitzer prizes had come and gone like meteors. So, too, had the lesser-known Ig Nobels.

"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."

Now 31 years old, the Ig Nobels are sourced on the Harvard University campus. The annual award ceremony evokes the irreverent theatrics of such other Harvard satirists as the Lampoon and Hasty Pudding Club. Part of what redeems the Ig Nobels from low comedy, according to the awards' press materials, is the participation of "genuine, genuinely bemused Nobel laureates."

I'm a believer in the "laugh, then think" approach to life's vicissitudes, and I have followed the annual Ig Nobels for a long time. Each year, without fail, some small detail strikes a responsive chord. This year brought a stunning surprise. Three Utah academics, all associated with the University of Utah, received the Ig Nobel Peace Prize!

Ethan Beseris, David Carrier and Steven Naleway shared the honor "for testing the hypothesis that humans evolved beards to protect themselves from punches to the face" just as manes protect the throats of male lions. I called Dr. Carrier to congratulate him. He was gracious.

The award was unexpected, he said, and he credited Beseris for doing most of the work over almost two years' time. The research was predicated on Charles Darwin's assertion that not only did beards attract females, facial hair provided protection when males fought over them with their fists.

The Utah team's acceptance speeches were delivered in a virtual ceremony that reached around the world on Sept. 9. "These awards recognize the exploratory research we should be proud of as a species," Carrier told me. "Progress depends on science."

The other peace prize of the season—the one announced in Norway—cited two journalists, Maria Ressa from the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov from Russia. They received the Nobel for their "courageous fight for freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace."

Nobel winners receive a gold medal, more than $1 million and lots of publicity. The Ig Nobel winners fare less well. Was the University of Utah planning any special recognitions for its three, newly minted laureates, I asked? Dr. Carrier demurred. That South Campus Drive could be re-named in their honor is speculative, the bearded biology professor told me. "We haven't heard from President Randall yet."

American researchers took another prize in this year's 10 Ig Nobel awards. They won the entomology prize for groundbreaking work on "a new method of cockroach control on submarines." Pedestrian collision research was the basis of two separate prizes. The prize in physics went to five scientists "for conducting experiments to learn why pedestrians do not constantly collide with other pedestrians." A different collaboration of researchers from Japan, Switzerland and Italy won the kinetics prize for their experiments "to learn why pedestrians do sometimes collide with other pedestrians." The opposite, dueling research made me smile.

The subject of sex is under constant scientific scrutiny. Not a year goes by without vagaries of sex research making headlines. Among this year's Ig Nobel Prizes was good news for allergy sufferers with libidos intact. "For demonstrating that orgasms can be as effective as decongestant medicines at improving nasal breathing," researchers from Germany, Turkey and Britain shared the Ig Nobel Prize in medicine.

Sex was also a factor in the foundational research of the Ig Nobel chemistry prize. Data-mining scientists "chemically analyzed the air inside movie theaters to test whether the odors produced by an audience reliably indicated the levels of violence, sex, antisocial behavior, drug use and bad language in the movie the audience was watching." It made me think of the Feelies in Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World. The Feelies went beyond sound and sight of the big screen by engaging the audience's sense of touch.

Three Swedes claimed the Ig Nobel biology prize "for analyzing variations in purring, chirping, chattering, trilling, tweedling, murmuring, meowing, moaning, squeaking, hissing, yowling, howling, growling and other modes of cat-human communication." One of their publications was titled "A Phonetic Pilot Study of Chirp, Chatter, Tweet and Tweedle in Three Domestic Cats." Discarded chewing gum was the object of Spanish and Iranian researchers. Their work was honored with the Ig Nobel Prize in ecology. They were cited for the work of "using genetic analysis to identify the different species of bacteria that reside in wads of chewing gum stuck on pavements in various countries."

The transportation prize was based on experiments moving black rhinos with helicopters in Africa. The presentation of the prize called attention to the finding that "it is safer to transport an airborne rhinoceros upside-down rather than sideways."

Finally, the Ig Nobel Prize in economics honored researchers from six countries "for discovering that the obesity of a country's politicians may be a good indicator of that country's corruption." I didn't laugh, and I didn't have to think. Recalling the presidencies of a skinny intellectual named Obama and a hefty demagogue named Trump made me think ignoble thoughts, then weep.

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