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The 2009 Ig Nobel Prizes


The 2009 Ig Nobel Awards for “research that first makes you laugh, then makes you think,” given by the scientific humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research, were presented last Thursday at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre.

And I think I must begin with the Public Health Prize, which went to Elena N. Bodnar, Raphael C. Lee, and Sandra Marijan of Chicago, who on August 14, 2007, received U.S. patent #7255627 for a “Garment Device Convertible to One or More Facemasks.”

What that patent title doesn’t tell you is that the “garment device” in question is a brassiere that can be turned into two face masks, one for the wearer of the brassiere (presumably) and the other for a needy bystander of the brassiere wearer’s choice.

The official website features a photo of Dr. Bodnar demonstrating her invention with the help of Nobel laureates Wolfgang Ketterle, Orhan Pamuk and Paul Krugman, all of whom look quite fetching in their individual half-brassiere masks.

But, as usual, there were so many wonderful awards presented it’s hard to fit them into the limited space of this column—not if I want to make wisecracks about them.

Speaking of wise cracks (ba-DUM-dum), the Medicine prize went to Dr. Donald L. Unger of Thousand Oaks, California, for his investigation of whether or not knuckle cracking leads to arthritis of the fingers. Unger, an allergist, investigated in the most straightforward way possible: for more than 60 years, starting in his teens, he diligently cracked the knuckles of his left hand—but never his right—every single day.

His results were published in 1998: he found no arthritis in either hand. Which, you have to admit, is swell. (Get it? Arthritis? Swell? Swelling? Oh, never mind.)

Mooooving on (that’s going to be really funny in a second), we come to the Veterinary Medicine prize, which went to Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson of Newcastle University in the U.K. for discovering that cows who have names give more milk than nameless cows. (The time or two I’ve had to herd cows I called them many names myself, but I doubt the names I used boosted milk production.)

People who drink too much beer are said to be “smashed.” A quintet of researchers from the University of Bern investigated the smashing qualities of beer in a different way, winning the Peace prize for determining, by experiment (in a drop tower, not a bar) whether it is better to be smashed over the head with a full bottle of beer or an empty one. Their conclusion? It is better not to be smashed over the head at all, because full or empty, a bottle of beer can break your skull. But full bottles break at a lower energy than empty ones, so in your next bar brawl, be sure to ask your assailant to use a full one.

Space is short, so let’s totter ahead to the Physics prize, given to U.S. researchers who analytically determined why pregnant women don’t tip over, and the Chemistry prize, which went to Mexican researchers who created diamonds from tequila (and no, they didn’t just notice the crystals on the edge of their sixth margarita and suddenly decide they were diamonds).

Ireland’s police service received the Literature prize for writing and presenting more than 50 traffic tickets to the most frequent driving offender in the country, Prawo Jazdy—Polish for Driving License.

The Economics prize was given to the “directors, executives, and auditors of four Icelandic banks” for demonstrating “that tiny banks can be rapidly transformed into huge banks, and vice versa—and for demonstrating that similar things can be done to an entire national economy,” and Gideon Gono, governor of Zimbabwe’s Reserve Bank, received the Mathematics prize “for giving people a simple, everyday way to cope with a wide range of numbers” by printing bank notes with denominations ranging from one cent to 100 trillion dollars.

And last, but certainly not least, a trio of Japanese researchers received the Biology prize for “demonstrating that kitchen refuse can be reduced more than 90% in mass by using bacteria extracted from the feces of giant pandas.”

Science is grueling work, you know. By the time they finished their research, I’ll bet they were all pooped out.

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