Every fall the leaves fall from the trees, and the Ig Nobel Prizes fall from on high (well, from the magazine Annals of Improbable Research) upon the grateful—usually—heads of researchers whose achievements “make people laugh—then think.”
My favorite this year (probably because I read and occasionally write fantasy novels, and thus have a possibly unhealthy interest in swords) was the award in medicine, given to radiologist Brian Witcombe of Gloucester and professional sword-swallower Dan Meyer of Tennessee for their medical report “Sword Swallowing and Its Side Effects.”
Astonishingly, almost nothing had been published on this subject before the penetrating, pointed and (one assumes) sharply written article by Witcombe and Meyer appeared in the British Medical Journal last year.
The most common problem for sword swallowers? “Sword throat,” a soreness that develops while they are learning. There are no documented fatalities among sword swallowers. The answer to what Witcombe calls “the big question” of “why the hell they do it,” however, awaits further cutting-edge research.
The Ig Nobel in Biology went to Prof. Dr. Johanna E.M.H. von Bronswijk of The Netherlands for her not-safe-for-bedtime-reading census of “all the mites, insects, spiders, pseudoscorpions, crustaceans, bacteria, algae, ferns and fungi with whom we share our beds each night.”
“The funny side is the fact that we never sleep alone, and even feed the millions of mites that infest our beds with our own skin scales,” says von Bronswijk.
Yeah, that’s funny, all right. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go boil the sheets.
OK, I’m back. “Make Love, Not War” took on a new meaning this year as the Ig Nobel for Peace went to the United States Air Force’s Wright Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio, for a 1994 proposal, uncovered in a declassified document, to create a powerful aphrodisiac as a chemical weapon. This would be non-lethal but disruptive, the document states, “especially if the chemical also caused homosexual behavior,” an observation which earned the proposed device the nickname “the gay bomb.”
Other ideas: chemicals that would attract angry or aggressive bugs (note to the military: the smell of barbecue seems to do the trick in Saskatchewan) or give enemy troops “severe and lasting halitosis,” which would make it hard for them to blend in with civilians.
Speaking of halitosis, it unexpectedly is not one of the side-effects of the vanillin extracted from cow dung by Mayu Yamamoto of the International Medical Center of Japan, who won this year’s Ig Nobel in Medicine. (In his honor, Toscanini’s Ice Cream introduced a new flavor, “Yum-a-Moto Vanilla Twist” at this year’s Ig Nobel ceremony at Harvard University.)
The Physics prize went to L. Mahadevan of Harvard and Enrique Cerda Villablanca of Chile, for studying how sheets become wrinkled. (Since I’m currently boiling mine, I should probably read their report.)
The prize in Linguistics went to Juan Manuel Toro, Josep B. Trobalon and Núria Sebastián-Gallés of Barcelona, for showing that rats sometimes cannot tell the difference between a person speaking Japanese backwards and a person speaking Dutch backwards. (Of course, to be fair, most humans can’t tell the difference between a Japanese rat squeaking backwards and a Dutch rat squeaking backwards, either.)
The Ig Nobel in Literature went to Glenda Browne of Australia, for her study of the many ways the word “the” causes problems for people sorting things into alphabetical order. The definite article, it seems, is a definite problem.
Kuo Cheng Hsieh of Taiwan netted the Economics prize for a device that nets bank robbers by, well, dropping a net on them.
Patricia V. Agostino, Santiago A. Plano and Diego A. Golombek of Argentina won the Ig Nobel in Aviation for discovering that Viagra helps hamsters recover from jetlag. (So if someone tells you, “No, that’s not my Viagra, it’s for my hamster,” they just might be telling the truth.)
Finally, the prize in Nutrition went to Brian Wansink of Cornell University, for discovering that people eating from self-refilling, never-emptied soup bowls eat more than people eating from normal bowls. Apparently, people keep eating as long there’s food around, long after they’re not hungry. Who knew?
And on a completely unrelated note, how was your Thanksgiving?