The 2011 Ig Nobel Prizes

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Ah, it’s my favorite time of the year, a time when this column practically writes itself. It’s Ig Nobel Prize time.

The Ig Nobel Prizes are presented by the science comedy magazine Annals of Improbable Research, to honour achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think.”

At the ceremony, genuine (and “genuinely bemused”) Nobel Laureates present the prizes. There are also other delights, such as mini-operas (this year’s: “Chemist in a Coffee Shop”) and, most notably, the 24/7 lectures, in which noted scientists explain their subject twice, offering a complete technical description in 24 seconds, followed by a concise summary anyone can understand in seven words (this year’s topics: Stress Responses, Single-Walled Carbon Nanotubes, Chemistry and Vagina pH). The ceremony can be watched online.

And now, without further ado, this year’s winners:

The physiology prize went to a quartet of scientists from various countries for their riveting study, “No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise,” which I find intriguing mainly because it seems to indicate there is non-contagious yawning in red-footed tortoises (tortii?).(Of course, if it took me that long to get wherever I was going, I’d be yawning before I got there, too.)

The coveted chemistry prize (this year’s ceremony theme was chemistry) was won by researchers from Japan who figured out the ideal density of airborne wasabi needed to wake sleepers up in the case of an emergency, and then used that knowledge to invent their patented wasabi alarm. Buy now and get a free side-order of sushi! Supplies are limited, and operators are standing by!

The medicine prize went to researchers from the Netherlands, Belgium, the U.S. and Australia, for demonstrating in two separate studies that people make better decisions about some things, but worse decisions about other things, when they have a strong need to urinate.

Which reminds me, I’ll be right back.

Much relieved, let us carry on. The psychology prize was won by Karl Halvor Teigen of the University of Oslo, for his study “Is a Sigh ‘Just a Sigh’? Sighs as Emotional Signals and Responses to a Difficult Task.”

Sigh.

Then there was the literature prize (near and dear to my heart), which went to John Perry of Stanford University for his Theory of Structured Procrastination, which states that to be a high achiever, you should work on something important, using it as a way to avoid doing something that’s even more important. This is exactly my method of procrastination, assuming you consider playing word games on Facebook important.

The biology prize went to what may be the finest piece of Australian research ever: Darry Gwynne and David Rentz’s discovery that a certain kind of beetle mistakes stubby beer bottles for female beetles, making them, if you’ll pardon the expression, bottle-boinking beetles. And they don’t even consume the contents first.

The prize for physics was won by researchers from France and the Netherlands for determining why discus throwers become dizzy and hammer throwers don’t. Alas, no demonstration was forthcoming at the ceremony.

The mathematics prize went to a distinguished group who have collectively taught the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations, namely Dorothy Martin of the U.S. (who predicted the world would end in 1954), Pat Robertson of the U.S. (who predicted the world would end in 1982), Elizabeth Clare Prophet of the U.S. (who predicted the world would end in 1990), Lee Jang Rim of Korea (who predicted the world would end in 1992), Credonia Mwerinde of Uganda (who predicted the world would end in 1999), and Harold Camping of the USA (who predicted the world would end on September 6, 1994, and when that didn’t happen, predicted the world will end on October 21, 2011).

 

The peace prize was awarded to the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, one Arturas Zuokas, who demonstrated on video that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved quite easily by running over them with a tank. Mr. Zuokas was even present to receive his award in person.

And finally, a Canadian winner! John Sanders of the University of Toronto won the public safety prize for a series of safety experiments he conducted (back in the mid-1960s; it can take time for the brilliance of research to be properly noted) in which a person drove an automobile on a major highway while a visor repeatedly flapped down over his face, blinding him.

And there you have it. Research to make you laugh, make you think…and make you hide your beer bottles. I look forward to next year’s Ig Nobel prizes.

Assuming the world doesn’t end on October 21, of course.

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