The Ig Nobel Prizes of 2001

Each year, the Nobel Prize Committee in Sweden honors outstanding scientific research from around the world.

And each year, just before the Nobel Prizes are awarded, the IgNobel Prize Committee in Cambridge, Massachusetts, awards the IgNobel Prizes to honor people whose achievements “cannot or should not be reproduced.”

The IgNobels, sponsored by the scientific humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research, area warded at a gala ceremony at Harvard University and handed out by genuine Nobel Prize winners. According to the organizers, the IgNobels (or Igs, for short) are” intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative — and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.” Not to mention provide a laugh or two.

One can’t accuse the winners of being out of touch with the concerns of the common man. For instance, the winner of the IgNobel Prize in Biology is Buck Weimer of Pueblo, Colorado, for inventing Under-Ease, airtight underwear with a replaceable charcoal filter that removes bad-smelling gases before they escape.

Under-Ease are made from a soft air-tight fabric with elastic sewn into the material around the waist and both legs. A triangular “exit hole” cut from the back of the underwear, near the bottom, is covered with a pocket made of a porous fabric; the pocket holds a filter containing activated charcoal.

Another problem which plagues everyone has been explained by another Ig winner. David Schmidt of the University of Massachusetts, winner of the IgNobel in Physics, knows why the shower curtain billows inwards when the shower is on.

Schmidt, an expert on sprays, used one-of-a-kind software he wrote to create a virtual model of his mother-in-law’s bathtub and simulate a 30-second shower in it. (It took his home computer two weeks to do the calculations.)

He found that the water droplets slow down because of atmospheric drag. As they slow, they transfer their energy to the air, which spins into a vortex, like a miniature hurricane turned on its side. The pressure at the center of this vortex is low, and so the higher-pressure air on the other side of the curtain pushes inward.

Another common phenomenon was the focus of “A Preliminary Survey of Rhinotillexomania in an Adolescent Sample,” by Chittaranjan Andrade and B. S. Srihari of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bangalore, India, which won the Ig in Public Health. This paper, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in June, 2001, concluded that rhinotillexomania is almost universal in adolescents and that fully 17 percent of them believe they suffer from a serious rhinotillexomania problem.

Rhinotellexomania is the scientific term for nose-picking.

Smaller children were the focus of the Ig-winning research in psychology. Larry Sherman, a professor of educational psychology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, won for his 1975 doctoral thesis, “An ecological study of glee in small groups of preschool children.” His conclusion? Children are more gleeful when they are singing nursery rhymes than when they are taking part in more serious activities such as reading.

The IgNobel Prize in Medicine went to Peter Barss of McGill University for his 1984 report, “Injuries Due to Falling Coconuts.” He discovered that 2.5 percent of trauma admissions to a Papua New Guinea hospital were due to being struck by falling coconuts, and concluded, “Falling coconuts can cause injury to the head, back and shoulders.” (No explanation is provided as to why a researcher from Canada, where coconut palms are exceedingly rare, conducted such a study.)

The Ig in Astrophysics went to Dr. Jack and Rexella Van Impe of Jack Van Impe Ministries in Rochester Hills, Michigan, who, in their March 31, 2001, television program, revealed that they had discovered that black holes fulfill all the technical requirements to be the location of Hell.

The other science-related IgNobel, awarded in Technology, went jointly to John Keogh of Hawthorn, Australia, who applied for an “innovation patent” for the wheel in 2001, and to the Australian Patent Office, which granted him one, apparently not realizing that the wheel has been in everyday use for several thousand years.

Like the Nobels, the IgNobels also honors recipients in non-scientific fields. Thus, the IgNobel in Economics went to Joel Slemrod, of the University of Michigan Business School, and Wojciech Kopczuk of the University of British Columbia for their paper “Dying to Save Taxes: Evidence from Estate Tax Returns on the Death Elasticity,” in which they concluded that statistics show that people find a way to postpone their deaths if that qualifies them for a lower rate on the inheritance tax.

The Ig in Peace went to Viliumas Malinauskus of Grutas, Lithuania, a “60-year-old canned mushroom mogul,” for creating a new amusement park: Stalin World. It mimics a Soviet prison camp, complete with barbed wire and guard towers, and contains 65 bronze and granite statues of Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, and other communist VIPs, along with a café, playground and small zoo.


And finally, John Richards of Boston, England, won the IgNobel prize in Literature for founding The Apostrophe Protection Society, to protect, promote and defend the differences between plural and possessive, a cause near and dear to my own writerly heart.

Once and for all, people, apostrophes are used to denote a missing letter or letters, as in “I can’t” (for “I cannot”) or to denote possession, as in “the dog’s bone” if only one dog is involved or “the dogs’ bone” if more than one dog is involved. (However, in the case of the possessive form of it, no apostrophe is used: “The bone is in its mouth,” not “the bone is in it’s mouth.” “It’s” is the contraction of “it is.”) Finally, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, apostrophes are NEVER used to denote plurals: “New CD’s just in!” is wrong, “New CDs just in!” is right.)


As far as I’m concerned, anyone fighting to stop the misuse of apostrophes deserves not just an IgNobel, but a Nobel, too!

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