Thursday, October 2, 2008

It's Ig Nobel time again!

My favorite annual awards, the Ig Nobel prizes, awarded for 'discoveries that cannot, or should not, be reproduced', were presented tonight.

This year's winners include:

  • Physics: Dorian Raymer, of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, California, for discovering why ropes, hair and cables get more knotted the longer they are.
  • Chemistry: Jointly awarded to Deborah Anderson, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Boston University's School of Medicine, and her colleagues, who found that Coca-Cola is a spermicide (for some reason, Diet Coke is the best variety); and to Chuang-Ye Hong, of Taipei Medical University, for showing that it is not. Prof. Anderson, whose teams' work appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1985, commented, "We're thrilled to win an Ig Nobel, because the study was somewhat of a parody in the first place." Anderson added that she does not recommend using Coke for birth control purposes. (A Coca-Cola spokeswoman refused to comment.)
  • Biology: Marie-Christine Cadiergues, of the National Veterinary School in Toulouse, for discovering that fleas jump higher on dogs than on cats.
  • Medicine: Dan Ariely, of Duke University, for demonstrating that expensive placebos are better painkillers than cheaper ones. Ariely's team told volunteers they were being given a new kind of painkiller, with some receiving an expensive one and others a much cheaper version. Even though all of them received the same sugar pills, those who thought their pills were more expensive reported less pain when they were given small electric shocks.
  • Economics: Geoffrey Miller, of the University of New Mexico, for discovering that lap dancers get larger tips when they are ovulating. Prof. Miller and his colleagues knew of prior studies that found women are more attractive to men when at peak fertility, so they applied this to the study of 'exotic dancers' (a.k.a. strippers). Of the 18 women they studied, average earnings were $250 for a five-hour shift. That jumped to $350 to $400 per five-hour shift when the women were their most fertile. "I have heard, anecdotally, that some lap dancers have scheduled shifts based on this research," Miller said.
  • Archaeology: Astolfo Mello Araujo, of the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, for measuring how the contents of an archaeological dig can be disrupted by the actions of an armadillo. The animals can move artifacts in archaeological dig sites up, down and even laterally by several meters as they dig. Araujo was delighted, saying via e-mail, "There is no Nobel Prize for archaeology, so an Ig Nobel is a good thing."
  • Cognitive neuroscience: Toshiyuki Nakagaki, of Hokkaido University in Japan, for discovering that amoeboid organisms can solve puzzles. Prof. Nakagaki was nonplussed to learn of his award, conferred for showing that slime mold could navigate a simple maze. "I was wondering which aspect of our research attracted the Ig Nobel prize. How does the prize evaluate our research? We are always serious and don't know why they laugh once before thinking," Nakagaki said.
  • Literature: David Sims, of Cass Business School, London, for discovering why there are bastards in the workplace. His paper examines how people construct roles as 'clever bastards', 'devious bastards' or 'bastard ex machina', and examines the mixture of joy and guilt experienced by labelling someone as such.
  • Nutrition: Charles Spence, of Oxford University, for making crisps taste better by modifying the sound of their crunch. By making the crunch sounds louder, or by boosting the high frequencies, Spence made people rate the crisps 15% fresher. His work led to a collaboration with the Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, Berkshire, which played the sound of crashing waves to improve the flavour of oysters, and sizzling bacon to enhance egg and bacon ice cream.
  • Peace: The Swiss 'federal ethics committee on non-human biotechnology' and the citizens of Switzerland, for acknowedging the principle that plants have dignity. No plant would comment on the record about this remarkable breakthrough.

Past winners include:

  • Economics, 1991: Michael Milken, inventor of the 'junk bond', two years after he was indicted for racketeering and securities fraud. (Note: As of last year, despite serving a jail sentence for his crimes, Mr. Milken was allegedly worth about $2 billion - so the prize might well have been justified!
  • Literature, 1993: Awarded to the 976 co-authors of a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine (vol. 329, no. 10). There were 100 times as many authors as there were pages in the article!
  • Medicine, 1993: Awarded to Drs. James F. Nolan, Thomas J. Stillwell, and John P. Sands, Jr., all working at a Navy Hospital in San Diego, for their 1990 research report, 'Acute Management of the Zipper-Entrapped Penis'.
  • Psychology, 1995: Shigeru Watanabe, Junko Sakamoto, and Masumi Wakita, who trained pigeons to discriminate between the paintings of Picasso and those of Monet.
  • Biology, 1996: Anders Barheim and Hogne Sandvik discovered that sour cream stimulates the appetite of leeches, but that beer intoxicates them and garlic often kills them.
  • Physics, 1996: Robert Matthews, who investigated Murphy's Law (in particular, whether buttered toast always falls with the buttered side down).
  • Biology, 1998: Peter Fong, who experimented by feeding Prozac to clams.
  • Physics, 2000: Andre Geim, of the University of Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and Sir Michael Berry, of Bristol University, England, for using magnets to levitate a frog.
  • Medicine, 2005: Gregg A. Miller, of Oak Grove, Missouri, in the U.S.A., for inventing Neuticles — artificial replacement testicles for neutered dogs.
  • Biology, 2006: Bart Knols, of Wageningen Agricultural University, in Wageningen, the Netherlands, and Ruurd de Jong of Wageningen Agricultural University and of Santa Maria degli Angeli, Italy, for showing that the female malaria mosquito Anopheles gambiae is attracted equally to the smell of limburger cheese and to the smell of human feet.

Sterling achievements (and achievers) all!

A video clip of the 2006 Ig Nobel awards may be found here, including footage of one of the winners of that year's Ornithology Ig Nobel award (conferred for explaining why woodpeckers don't get headaches).



Anonymous said...

You know, I've been doing some research along the same lines as the Swiss. I don't know about the whole dignity thing, but my carefully monitored studies have revealed two things that don't seem to be coincedence:

1) Asparagus seems to be found in the vicinity of Hollandaise sauce.

2) There is an uncanny juxtaposition between broccoli and cheddar cheese sauce.

It's too early to jump to any conclusions, certainly not for publication, but I would appreciate feedback from others in order to confirm my tentative results.

Anonymous said...

Did Roy Glauber sweep up the paper airplanes as usual?

KD5NRH said...

Well, I'd have to point out that the archaeology one is at least useful, given that positioning of artifacts isn important in determining relevance to certain activities and/or other artifacts.