IgNobel Awards 2011

Sorry for the silence of late! I’ve been in Florida for the AACR conference in Orlando, plus some R&R in Miami. Resuming semi-normal service…

Before that I attended the IgNobel Awards tour show (and the pre-event, Improbable Research After Dark, which was excellent) and would like to share some of it with you because it was entertaining and educational; the top two aspects we nerdy types hope for from events, of course.

Marc Abrahams (centre of the photo, left) hosted the evening, which consisted of some background on the IgNobel prizes, some selected highlights from the actual awards shows and talks from some of last year’s winners.

To keep talks to time, 4 ‘volunteers’ would quack after each minute, culminating with non-stop quacking when the speaker ran out of time. This will make more sense later.

The Annals of Improbable Research is a bi-monthly publication. It includes original research such as the somewhat hilarious ‘Kansas is flatter than a pancake‘ study.

Firstly, a selection of the main prizes awarded in 2010:

1. Engineering - Whale snot-sampling helicopter

2. Medicine - treating asthma with rollercoaster rides (my Welsh colleague would love this, he went on so many while we were away!)

3. Transportation Planning – Japan/UK; slime mold planning rail systems

4. Physics - wearing socks outside shoes causes fewer slips and falls on ice in Winter. It’ll catch on, wait and see.

5. Peace - Swearing relieves pain! I knew it!!

6. Public Health – experimentally determining that bacteria stick to beardy scientists! From 1967, this study set the basic standard for microbiological lab safety methods.

7. Economics - to the companies who got us where we are today.

8. Chemistry - disproving “oil and water don’t mix”

9. Management - random promotion would increase organisations’ efficiency! Dubbed the ‘Peter principle’

10. Biology - a study of  fellatio among fruit bats. Yes.

6 days after the 2010 awards (also the 20th ceremony), in Stockholm, the Nobel prize for Physics was awarded to Andre Geim for graphene; 10 years previously he received an IgNobel for levitating a frog with magnets!

During the ceremony itself, one can traditionally win a date with a Nobel prize winner! A happy 91 year-old indeed…

We were treated to a selection of old winners (there are approximately 200 in total now)

- 2000: dog vs. cat fleas’ jumping ability (dogs fleas win)

- 2007: the emergency bra – more on this later!

- 1965: a very scary patent for a rotating birthing table.

- 2003: homosexual mallard necrophilia. A love of duck sex-related stories is an ongoing joke amongst such eminent science writers as Mark Henderson, Ed Yong (parental advisory warning for that post!!) and others… So the quacking-timer setup had particular comedy relevance when Mark read out some of the original study at the Improbable Research After Dark event. I’m sure you can imagine.

- 2000: Australian patent office awards someone an innovation patent for… the wheel.

The IgNobel institution has even been converted into a Manga story! Called ‘Geniuses without the glory’: Marc Abrahams points out that perhaps it should be the other way around?

Included is the inventor of karaeoke, who was awarded the Peace Prize for inventing ‘a new way for people to learn to tolerate each other’ – he didn’t patent it and has made no money from it!

Left: the infamous slime mold. Right: karaeoke action (Can’t Take My Eyes Off You) and the creator overwhelmed with emotion!

In 1995 there was a British IgNobel winner, and according to Marc:

Britain is the finest natural producer of IgNobel prize winners in the world

Research from Norwich on how cereal flakes get soggy in milk achieved the honour and the authors sent a video acceptance.

The Chief Scientific advisor to the government at the time telephoned Marc telling him not to give the award; he thought perhaps it was an ‘example of the famous subtle British humour’. Lots of other scientists cited a reputation for him being a nice guy. So Marc, assuming it was a joke, wrote him a letter.

This included (valid) points such as the fact that IgNobels can help get the public interested in and curious about science; plus scientists enjoy it!

The advisor wrote back angrily, telling him to stop giving the awards!! Even if the scientists do want them!

Marc then started talking to people, including Nature, The Times, Guardian, Reuters… stories started cropping up everywhere. A government official’s reaction like this could perhaps go some way to explaining public discomfort with science? It turned out to be a good controversy!

Now his ire is immortalised in Manga. He’s probably not too happy about that either.

The Speakers

1. Dan Bebber – slime molds and the Japanese rail system

Can we make use of biological networks to improve our network design? Is the simple combination of Mold, Agar and Oats better/more efficient than engineering companies?

Slime molds have been honed through evolution to make efficient networks. So the short answer is yes, they are at least as good at planning sensible routes from A to Z and all stops along the way.

2. Elena Bodnar – on the super-innovative bra-mask, for which the UK is apparently a top customer! And the new male counterpart device, the emergency shirt.

We were even treated to a demonstration, in which one volunteer pleaded

If any of my students are here, don’t take photos!

When she was asked “Who would you save?” she considered it, made her choice and said “well, he is my boss”.

Sid donated his shirt for a demonstration of the Emergency Shirt (the actual specimen having mysteriously disappeared). He even wore the bra to preserve his modesty. For a while…

So far it’s available only in red and for cups B-D on ebbra.com – it’s just idea for now, but should expand to all sizes and more designs eventually!

3. Matija Strlic and his chemical analysis of old book smell.

There’s also a ‘New Book Smell’ airfreshener for kindle! More than 200 chemicals (some toxic!) form these odours, as determined by Headspace analysis of 80 books.

Particularly due to volatile organic compounds that together produce a smell of vanilla ice and caramel! The actual use of this kind of research is in development of an artificial nose to assess and predict the rate of paper decay.

He passed around some ‘old book smell’ in a Duran bottle (sturdy branded lab glass)! It was surprisingly spot on.

4. John Hoyland at New Scientist (who edits the Feedback feature)

Frootloopery is a favourite subject at NS; including ridiculous medical claims such as trinfinity8 that ‘transmits algorithms into body to combat ageing!’ for a mere $8,000.

Also the Denon AKDL1 cable, allegedly marketed at some point for $9,999.

Winner of the Amazon most-sarcastic-reviews! Highly recommend a read, very amusing.

Apparently it generated such comments as:

I put it in a glass of water, that started to turn a dark sort of colour.., my friend and I agreed it was the best red we’d ever tasted

Questionable marketing is also covered, including the use of ‘free’ (e.g. FREE TEXTS when you top up £10/month!),internet speed claims (Up to 8Mb/s! = 3 if you’re lucky), amusing signs (“simulated Virtual Reality” – eh?) and so on.

Chronic Woman Disease got the most lols. The fire extinguisher thing is probably an inflammatory translation phenomenon of some sort.

Also there is a Private Eye Colemanballs-style section for silly things people have said, such as one commentator’s gem:

time seemed to stop for 3/4 of a second

5. Gareth Jones – fruit bat fellatio!

This article climbed to the 2nd most-viewed video on the PLOSone video site. They found that every 1 second of fellatio led to an extra 7 seconds’ copulation time! Also in some species, in terms of size, testicles > brain!

Science and Nature covered it as well (but didn’t publish it, he not-at-all bitterly pointed out).

Good point well made in the HuffPo

Question: What was the first most-viewed paper? Answer: a PLOS Medicine article about “why most scientific research is false” – fair enough then.

Finally we were ‘treated’ to McGonagalls’s Tay Bridge Disaster poem, again, having read it at  Improbable Research After Dark as well.

The poem has probably ended up ranking as, a greater tragedy than the bridge incident itself.

Billy Connolly reads:

Links:

The founder of the Irish skeptics explores the importance of the IgNobels in science communication in the Irish Times.

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