Archive for October 7th, 2009

Research that makes you laugh…and then makes you think

by Toby J. Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

For those of you unfamiliar with the Ig Nobel, it’s a bit like the Nobel Prize, minus the generous cash award, the trip to Sweden, and any of the gravitas.

According to Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, and founder of the Ig Nobel Prize,  the prize is awarded for “achievements that cannot or should not be reproduced.”  Abrahams warns that you should “Examine that phrase carefully. It covers a lot of ground. It says nothing as to whether a thing is good or bad, commendable or pernicious.” What this means is that after something is discovered or invented for the first time, it can not be discovered or invented for the first time, again.

For example, take the case of 1996 winner of the Ig Noble Art Prize, Don Featherstone. While the name may not ring a bell, chances are you’ve seen his work. Don Featherstone is the creator of the pink plastic flamingo, which absolutely qualifies under the “cannot be repeated” clause. Once the pink plastic flamingo was invented, it could never be invented again. Although, growing up in Florida, I saw many people attempt to improve upon the concept, including a variety of holiday outfits designed for the plasticized Ciconiiformes. So far, there is no Ig Nobel Prize for flamingo fashion, but who knows what the future may hold.


The Ig, as it’s affectionately known, isn’t designed to honor the best or the worst like so many other awards, instead it celebrates the muddled middle in which most of us exist. It acknowledges not that you have accomplished something for the betterment, or detriment of humankind; but simply that you have accomplished some thing. Every year, about half of the prizes are awarded to people that have done something useful, albeit somewhat laughable at first glance. The other half is reserved for work that is considered … well, questionable at best.

Some of the research that has garnered the Ig in the past includes that of two time prize winner, Jacques Benveniste (Ig Noble Chemistry Prize, 1991 & 1998) who claimed that water molecules not only have memories, but that those memories could be digitally transmitted over telephone lines. Benveniste’s research was never successfully reproduced, but is still one of the tenants held by many homeopaths as to the “validity” of their work. Likewise, Louis Kervran won the Ig Nobel Prize for Physics in 1993 for his research on chicken eggs, and his attempt to demonstrate that the calcium in the eggshell is created in a process of cold fusion. Needless to say, both the claims of smart water and nuclear chickens are dubious at best.

Then there’s the group of behavioral scientists that were able to train pigeons to discriminate between the paintings of Picasso and Monet. On the surface, producing avian art snobs may seem kind of goofy, but a deeper look can show insight into the effects of conditioning and reinforcement on both bird and human behavior. Other valid research has included that of Anders Barheim and Hogne Sandvik, who won the prize for biology by demonstrating that sour cream stimulated the appetite of leeches, while beer had an intoxicating effect and garlic often proved fatal. Not only did Barheim and Hogne successfully petition to win the Ig, they also helped solve the conundrum of what to serve, and not serve, whilst entertaining leeches.

While, understandably, not everyone loves the Ig Nobel Prize, many have fully embraced it and the spirit in which it is given. Each year, many Nobel Laureates attend the ceremony to present the awards in various categories, with the event being a lighthearted prelude to the actual Nobel Prizes awarded a few weeks later.

This year’s winners include Donald Unger, who for 60 years diligently cracked the knuckles on his left hand, but not his right, to disprove his mother’s theory that it would lead to him developing arthritis. The Ig Nobel Prize for peace went to a group of forensic pathologists at the University of Bern in Switzerland, who researched whether it was better to be hit with a full or empty beer bottle in a bar room brawl. The physics prize went to researchers from the Universities of Cincinnati, Texas, and Harvard for their paper, Fetal Load and the Evolution of Lumbar Lordosis in Bipedal Hominins, which explored the reasons why pregnant women don’t tip over. Falling into the dubious category was Elena Bodnar, the winner of the prize for public health. Ms. Bodnar’s contribution was a brassiere, which could be quickly removed in an emergency and converted into a pair of gas masks — one to wear, and one to share … apparently.

Bra mask

October 2009

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