Recap: the Ig Nobels

On September 30, nerds from around the globe convened at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre to award the 2010 Ig Nobel Prizes. Kooky scientific achievements abounded, as did microbial-themed musical numbers, participatory paper airplane throwing contests, a Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobel-Laureate Contest, and an “audience bacterial exchange”--needless to say, fun your high school physics teacher would approve of.

Many Ignitaries from yesteryear also attended the ceremony, including 2009 winner Elena Bodnar, who was awarded the Public Health Prize for inventing a brassiere that can be converted into a gas mask. Bodnar engaged in an on-stage practical demonstration of her product, which culminated with her removing her own bra and strapping it to the face of several octogenarian (real) Nobel Laureates, as well as literary guru Neil Gaiman, who was also in attendance. But don’t take my word for it--check out full video of the event here and brace yourself for (or skip ahead to) the undergarment madness beginning at minute 42. For those who don’t have time to view the entire ceremony, we’ve included brief summaries of the winning scientists’ pitches, which were delivered at an informal lecture event on October 2. Check out some video clips from this event over at our YouTube channel. Now, commence knowledge acquisition:

Chemistry Prize: Proving that Oil and Water DO Mix
Speakers: Eric Adams (MIT) and Scott Socolofsky (Texas A&M)
Synopsis: As a sophomore undergrad at Harvey Mudd, Adams decided to switch from a chemistry to an engineering major because the chem labs conflicted with afternoon beach time. Twenty five years later, Adams and Co. are still angry about beach-related inconveniences, this time in the Gulf Coast. Their research disproves BP-perpetuated lies that oil molecules will all rise to the surface of a body of water. Rather, the oil will remain suspended in the water as tiny droplets, rising slowly over time. Smaller droplets take longer to rise, and adding a chemical dispersant makes the droplets even smaller, so basically the study confirms what we pretty much already knew: BP messed up bad.
Best quote: Audience: “Do you ever expect BP to fund your research ever again?”
Adams: “Possibly no.”

Engineering Prize: Perfecting a Method to Collect Whale Snot, Using a Remote-control Helicopter
Speakers: Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse and Agnes Rocha-Gosselin (London, UK); Diane Gendron (Baja California Sur, Mexico)
Synopsis: Collecting snot from human subjects is relatively easily, if not slightly unpleasant. Whale snot is (predictably) much more difficult to acquire, so this team of marine-loving scientists figured out a way to attach a snot-sampling device to a remote-control helicopter. Once collected, the snot provides baseline info on normal pathogens present in whale populations, data that can help to analyze disease patterns in afflicted whale communities. Even the speakers admitted that, all mucus jokes aside, the main reason they were at the Ig Nobels was because of the remote-control helicopter.
Best quote: Audience: “Do you sterilize the helicopter?”

Medicine Prize: Discovering that Symptoms of Asthma can be Treated with a Roller-coaster Ride
Speakers: Simon Rietveld and Ilja van Beest (Amsterdam, The Netherlands)
Synopsis: “Human beings are generally not accurate in their perception of physical symptoms,” said van Beest, a Dutch psychologist. Apparently, people are inclined to evaluate a situation in terms of their own emotional state, rather than just using the cold hard facts. Asthmatics are particularly aware of this fact, given that the physical cause of asthma--lung constriction--is not always correlated to the self-reported feeling of breathlessness. The researchers had a group of 40 students (most of whom had chronic asthma) ride a roller-coaster, measuring their breathlessness before and after the ride. They found that breathlessness peaked beforehand, coinciding with the negative, nervous emotions that often precede strapping yourself to a death-defying piece of flying metal, and that it was practically non-existent afterward, when all of the subjects were excited, relaxed, and glad to be alive. The conclusion: asthmatics will overuse medication during experiences of negative emotion, and under-use it when experiencing positive emotions.
Best quote: Van Beest: “While studying asthma patients in the past, we had people inhale citric acid, we used itching powder, and we even blamed children for failing a computer game.”

Audience: “What do the numbers on the vertical axis mean?”
Rietveld: “Well, to be honest, they don’t mean that much.”

Transportation Planning Prize: Using Slime Mold to Determine the Optimal Routes for Railroad Tracks
Speakers: Toshiyuki Nakagaki, Kentaro Ito, and Atsushi Tero (Japan); Mark Fricker and Dan Bebber (UK)
Synopsis: After winning an Ig Nobel in 2008 for demonstrating that slime molds can solve puzzles, Toshiyuki and his crew are back with more slimy innovations. Essentially, slime molds are “great big amoebas,” single-celled organisms that, when allowed to grow in a maze, will solve the shortest route from start to finish. The team posists that this “Darwinian selection of transport routes” can be applied in the field of bio-inspired network design. Translation: amoebas may be able to fix the Boston subway system (hard to imagine the slime would approve of the Green Line), because God knows human beings can’t do it.
Best quote: Nakagaki: “It is much better for you to change your stupid opinion that slime mold is stupid.”

Physics Prize: Wearing Socks on the Outside of Your Shoes Reduces Chance of Slipping on Ice
Speaker: Lianne Parkin (New Zealand)
Synopsis: Each winter, steep, icy streets render the city of Dunedin, New Zealand a veritable death trap for its fair citizens. Historically, some “enterprising individuals” have worn socks over their shoes to combat this “seemingly intractable problem.” When the options are sartorial suicide or icy tumbles, everyone truly is stuck between a rock and a hard place. As public health academics, Parkin and her colleagues “naturally felt obliged to conduct a proper evaluation.” After completing some slippery field research, they concluded that the “socks over shoes” method really did provide more traction and confidence than unadulterated footwear. You may want to consider socking up your boots (which may involve socially socking yourself in the face) the next time an icy hill looks particularly menacing this winter.
Best Quote: Parkin: “Some people took our research rather seriously. Much more seriously than we did.”

Peace Prize: Swearing Actually Relieves Pain
Speaker: Richard Stephens (UK)
Synopsis: Swear words are becoming increasingly prevalent in our modern society (can you even fathom a time when it wasn’t okay to say bitch on t.v.?), but one arena in which swear words have always been the norm is that of physical pain. I don’t care how puritanical you are, when that pinky toe collides with the table leg, you want to scream nasty, repulsive, four-letter-word-laden phrases. Stephens conducted an experiment to test whether cursing actually helps to relieve pain. In his experiment, subjects were asked to place a hand in ice cold water, and then instructed to swear or say a neutral word. As it turns out, those who swear are able to keep their hand in the water for a longer period of time--sweet vindication for the foul-mouthed. But not so fast; apparently, people that don’t swear often in daily life get much more of a protective effect in the experiment than those who swear all the time. As Stephens concluded, “swearing is useful, but don’t overdo it.”
Best quote: Audience: “If ice bucket latency became an Olympic sport, would swearing be a banned substance?”

Management Prize: Organizations Would Become More Efficient if They Promoted People at Random
Speakers: Alessandro Pluchino, Andrea Rapisarda, and Cesare Garofalo (Italy)
Synopsis: What’s that? Jerry the new guy just got promoted after four months and you haven’t seen a raise in four years? If that isn’t the pits, I don’t know what is. But that’s the way it may be now that Alessandro Pluchino and his team have mathematically proven that corporate efficiency is compromised in the type of merit-based system we of democratic and civil mien know and love. The idea that merit-based promotion doesn’t always work traces its roots back to the late 1960s, when Lawrence Peter proposed that every new member of an hierarchical organization climbs the hierarchy until reaching his or her level of incompetence, such that, after a certain amount of time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is too incompetent to carry out his or her duties. Pluchino suggests that avoiding the self-defeating consequences of the Peter Principle is possible by adopting random promotions.

Biology Prize: Fellatio among Fruit Bats Prolongs Copulation Time
Speaker: Gareth Jones (Bristol, UK)
Synopsis: Oral sex is a common practice of foreplay among humans, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find it in the rest of the animal kingdom. Fret not inter-special voyeurs, you have a saving grace in Gareth Jones, who has made it his scientific prerogative to document fruit bats getting down to the birds and the bees. Mmm, mmm gross. After months of vigorous observation, his team found that female fruit bats perform fellatio on males before and during sex. Each second of fellatio adds six seconds to the total copulation time, perhaps indicating that fruit bats have a secret plot to reach Sting levels of marathon tantric sex. Scientifically speaking, their saliva could also act as a bactericidal agent, thereby reducing the transmission of STDs (totally taking the wind out of the bat condom market sails). Either way, these types of studies are gaining traction in the scientific community, with Jones citing an upcoming paper about the “adaptive significance of masturbation in ground squirrels.” Thirteen year-old boys the world over are dancing gleefully.
Best quote: Jones: “The paper was published in PLoS ONE last year, and we have a little video demonstration...”
[video doesn’t work]
Emcee: “We’ll just try this manually, as they say.”
-- Michael Goetzman and Micah Hauser
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