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Ig Nobel prizes make you laugh... then think

Marc Abrahams pictured with the Public Health prize-winning wonder bra at TEDx at CERN. © CERN
Marc Abrahams pictured with the Public Health prize-winning wonder bra at TEDx at CERN. © CERN

Each Autumn, just before the announcement in Stockholm of the genuine Nobel Prize laureates, a band of merry men at Harvard University distribute the ‘Ig Nobel Prizes’. These awards recognise real research work that make people laugh… and then think.

‘Research is by definition improbable.’ Marc Abrahams, who edits the AIR magazine (Annals of Improbable Research) is very clear about this. At the same time, he also believes in the power of making people laugh. And yes, research can also be very funny. ‘If it makes you laugh at first, it will afterwards make you think,’ he said, talking to Horizon magazine on 3 May in Geneva, where he was one of the speakers invited to the TEDx meeting at CERN. ‘And at the same time, we also hope to spur people's curiosity for science,’ he said.

‘You see this bra? It can save two lives: yours and someone next to you! It is the invention of Dr. Elena Bodnar. She invented a brassiere that can quickly convert into a pair of protective face masks. It even was patented and turned out to be a commercial product. For this, we decided to give her the “Public Health” prize.’ What is useful to know is that Dr Bodnar, who is now working in the US, started her career as a physician in Ukraine… during the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

Each year, Ig Nobel prizes are awarded to real scientists who conducted and published real research work, which in the eyes of the Ig Nobel committee ‘could not or should not be reproduced’. The bra story is just one example. The same year nine other research projects were also crowned with an Ig Nobel award. The ceremony takes place at Harvard, said Marc Abrahams. It is attended by 1 200 persons. And by the way, these prizes are handed out by genuine Nobel laureates…

Whilst the Ig Nobel prizes are awarded in the US, they can go to any scientist in the world. And a lot of Europeans researchers have been honoured by one. ‘Usually we contact them discreetly to tell them they are laureates. If they refuse the prize, we turn to someone else,’ explained Marc Abrahams. ‘But that does not happen very frequently.’

European laureates

Among the European laureates, we can point to Anita Eerland and Rolf Zwaan, from the Netherlands, who received the Psychology prize in 2012 for their study showing that ‘Leaning to the Left Makes the Eiffel Tower Seem Smaller’. (Psychological Science, vol. 22 no. 12, December 2011, pp. 1511-14.).

In two experiments, they investigated whether body posture influences people’s estimation of quantities. According to the mental-number-line theory, people mentally represent numbers along a line with smaller numbers on the left and larger numbers on the right, wrote the researchers in the scientific journal. ‘We hypothesised that surreptitiously making people lean to the right or to the left would affect their quantitative estimates’.  And they concluded that indeed ‘they were significantly smaller when participants leaned to the left than when they leaned to the right’.

The previous year, Philippe Perrin, from France, was awarded the Physics prize for determining why ‘discus throwers become dizzy’. (Acta Oto-laryngologica, vol. 120, no. 3, March 2000, pp. 390–5.).

‘While both discus and hammer throwing involve rotating movements resulting in the throw of an object, discus throwers sometimes report dizziness, a condition never experienced by hammer throwers,’ indicated his team in Acta Oto-laryngological. Perrin and his colleagues investigated whether this susceptibility was related to the sensitivity of the thrower or to the type of throwing achieved. They showed that during hammer throwing, visual bearings can be used more easily than during discus throwing: a crucial difference in the specific execution of each sport that is responsible for the dizziness experienced by discus throwers.

Two British scientists, Claire Rind and Peter Simmons, of Newcastle University, were awarded an Ig Nobel ‘Peace prize’ in 2005 for their study ‘electrically monitoring the activity of a brain cell in a locust while… that locust was watching selected highlights from the movie Star Wars’.

The study described, among other things, how the ‘descending contralateral movement detector’ (DCMD) neuron in the locust was challenged with a variety of moving stimuli, including scenes from a film (Star Wars), moving disks, and images generated by computer. Apparently, the neuron responds well to any rapid movement.

In Italy, Massimiliano Zampini of the University of Trento, Italy, and Charles Spence, of Oxford University, UK, received the Nutrition prize for electronically modifying the sound of a potato chip to make the person chewing the chip believe it to be crisper and fresher than it really is. (Journal of Sensory Studies, vol. 19, October 2004, pp. 347-63.)

But in 23 years of Ig Nobel prizes, the one that Marc Abrahams likes the most comes from the Netherlands. ‘It is the Biology prize from 2003,’ he said. ‘It was a study from the Natural History Museum of Rotterdam that documented the first scientifically recorded case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck’…. (Deinsea, vol. 8, 2001, pp. 243-7)

Research that first makes you laugh but then think, remember?

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