I recently overheard a discussion of that age-old question: “what is art?” I chose not to engage in that particular conversation, but I thought of it a few days later when I came across the Ig Nobel Prizes. Brought to us by the folks behind the Annals of Improbable Research, the Ig Nobel Prizes recognize and award “research that makes people laugh, and then makes them think.” The Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students, the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association, and the Harvard Computer Society are co-sponsors of the awards ceremony. If nothing else, some of these research projects will make you think about a less commonly encountered question: “what is science?”

Many Ig Nobel Prize winners are also Nobel Prize winners, which lends some credence to what these awards are all about. The Ig Nobel Prizes are a celebration of the fact that science can be useful and fun at the same time. I know some scientists, and they are some of the zaniest, fun people I’ve ever known, so it makes sense that they should have an award that is all about the funny in science.

This year’s Ig Nobel Prize winners were awarded recently during a ceremony (PDF) that included two paper airplane deluges, celebrity bacteria, and a Win-a-date-with-a-Nobel-Laureate contest, among other riotous activities. “The Universe” themed awards were also televised live on the Improbable Research TV Channel via YouTube. Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded in 10 categories:

  • Psychology
  • Peace
  • Acoustics
  • Neuroscience
  • Chemistry
  • Literature
  • Physics
  • Fluid dynamics
  • Anatomy
  • Medicine

As usual, all of the 2012 winning entries were interesting and entertaining; the Ig Nobel Prize for Literature stands out as being particularly poignant. The U.S. Government General Accountability Office received the award for a special report titled “Actions Needed to Evaluate the Impact of Efforts to Estimate Costs of Reports and Studies,” which found that changes are needed to the reports conducted by the Department of Defense (DoD) about cost-estimate reports of other reports. We are left to wonder what all this does to the bottom line of the cost of reports. One also might wonder whether all this reporting is really science.

One of the year’s most useful applications of scientific research was conducted by Rouslan Krechetnikov and Hans Mayer, who won the Ig Nobel Prize in Fluid Dynamics. Their study “Walking with Coffee: Why Does It Spill?” found that the reason coffee sloshes out of a cup when you walk with it is due to the physical properties of coffee itself, the cup size, and the motion of walking with said cup of coffee. I think we can all agree that this is some serious science, and perhaps the most important breakthrough of the year. Plus, it’s so simple — anybody can test this theory at home. Go on, give it a try. See how much coffee you can slosh just by walking around. Write a report about a report about what defines science, and you might be in the running for next year’s Ig Nobel Prizes.