Saturday, September 21, 2013

Proof that science has a sense of humor

The eagerly awaited - well, I always look forward to them - Ig Nobel prizes in science were handed out this week. These are the prizes that began 23 years ago as a spoof of the somewhat more prestigious Nobel prizes that will be given out next month. The humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research organizes and sponsors the ten awards and the ceremony takes place at Harvard University around this time every year. The stated aim of the awards is to "first make people laugh, and then make them think." There's certainly a lot in this year's awards to make us think. And occasionally retch.

For example: The archaeology prize went to Brian Crandall and Peter Stahl for parboiling a dead shrew, then swallowing the shrew without chewing, and then carefully examining everything excreted during subsequent days just so they could determine which bones would dissolve inside the human digestive system and which bones would not. The sacrifices that some scientists are willing to make for their research!

Continuing with the excreta theme, a joint prize in biology and astronomy was awarded to a group of scientists who discovered that when dung beetles get lost, they can navigate their way home by looking at the Milky Way. Even insects that spend their time rolling up balls of poop can look at the stars. Who knew? Well, now we do, thanks to these scientists' selfless work.

The peace prize was awarded jointly to Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, for making it illegal to applaud in public and to the Belarus State Police for arresting a one-armed man for applauding.

In public health, the prize was given to a group of surgeons who described their medical techniques in a report entitled "Surgical Management of an Epidemic of Penile Amputations in Siam." Apparently, their techniques are recommended, except in cases where the amputated penis has been partially eaten by a duck. (Don't ask. You'll just have to read the report.)

In psychology, several researchers were recognized for their experiment which confirmed that people who are drunk tend to think that they are more attractive. Their paper was entitled "Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beer Holder."

A group of physicists won that category's prize by discovering that some people would be physically capable of running across the surface of a pond - if those people and that pond were on the moon. Sheldon and Leonard of "The Big Bang Theory" would be so proud!

Several scientists worked together in the field of chemistry to discover that the biochemical process by which onions make people cry is even more complicated than scientists previously realized. For that, they won a prize.

But I've saved my two favorites of this year's prizes for the last.

Bert Tolkamp, Marie Haskell, Fritha Langford, David Roberts, and Colin Morgan spent a lot of time closely observing cows and they discovered two things: (1.) The longer a cow has been lying down, the more likely that cow will soon stand up; and (2.) Once a cow stands up, you cannot easily predict how soon that cow will lie down again. For this startling discovery, they won the probability prize.

And last but certainly not least, the late Gustavo Pizzo invented an electro-mechanical system to trap airplane hijackers. His system would drop the hijacker through trap doors, seal him into a package and drop the encapsulated hijacker through the airplane's specially-installed bomb bay doors, whence he parachutes to earth, where police, having been alerted, await his arrival. I think Mr. Pizzo may have watched a few too many James Bond movies. But what an imagination!

And imagination and innovation and the willingness to pursue an idea even if it seems crazy and the whole world laughs at you - that is what the Ig Nobels are all about.



  1. What will those silly Harvardians think of next? I love this post! Thanks, I needed a good laugh. I'll bet the organizers of the psychology study had no shortage of willing participants, especially if it was conducted near a college campus.

    1. The Ig Nobels are always good for a laugh. I just think it's great that scientists are able to laugh at themselves.