This week I spent an evening at a theatre in Leiden celebrating the Ig Nobel Awards 2012, a series of prizes run by the magazine Annals of Improbable Research, which rewards research which makes you laugh first, and then think.
I was initially trepid about the whole thing. The event ran from 10pm – 3am, with the actual awards being live streamed form Harvard from 1.30am (7.30pm EST). Up to then was a programme of events which as far as I could gather was entirely in Dutch. An email to the organisers was met with a quick response, which basically said ‘you might not understand large chunks of the event, but I’m pretty sure you’ll have a great time anyway.’ With a ringing endorsement like that I was sold.
I had never heard of the awards before, and I really wasn’t prepared for the sheer absurdity of the evening. The Leiden-run part of the evening was in part a celebration of the Netherlands’s contribution to strange science, with 6 former winners presenting a 5 minute summary of their victorious research. There was also an English language science opera, some other brief talks and a few demonstrations.
The only way to articulate the kind of evening I ended up having is to explain some of the science I heard about and witnessed. On entering, I was confronted by two experiments. One related to the likelihood of buttered toast falling butter side down if it was dropped from a plate. The conclusion of the experiment, which essentially involved dropping a lot of toast, was that we should all carry our plates around head height, as that increased distance to floor allows the toast more time to spin full circle and fall the right way up. Another experiment involved finding the ideal dunking time and time technique for biscuits in tea. It’s actually a very complex bit of research with elaborate formulae, but for the layperson here are a few handy hints: Don’t use boiling water, let it cool a bit first. Dunk at an angle closer to flat; withdraw before it soaks all the way through. This allows for lots of dunked goodness, but a significantly reduced likelyhood of loosing it into your tea. Finally, dunking enhances biscuit flavour by almost 10 times, so it’s worth it! Needless to say research I highly approve of, even if the scientist does make a terrible cup of tea. Continentals.
Then followed the talks, which were officiated by a Dutch man dressed slightly like Willy Wonka and an American referee to keep time. I still don’t really know if he was American; he had a good accent and only spoke English, but seemed to understand Dutch very well even if he didn’t speak it at any point.
Some of the research presented seemed absurd, and some of phenominal use. One former winner had been awarded a grant of $8.5million from the Bill Gates to implement his work into the smell of feet and Limburge Cheese. This epitomises the awards at their best; The Dutch researcher was examining the relationship between Malaria, the smell of cheese and feet. Certain sepecies of Mosquito disproportionally bite feet, attracted by a particular bacteria. The research noted this same bacteria was present in Limburgse Cheese; the likely reason being that in the original making process, curd was broken up by mashing it with the feet (like grapes in wine making). Incidentally, this also shows that cheese smells like feet and not the other way round. The upshot of all this seemingly strange research is that he has been able to synthesise cheese based honey traps to attract mosquitoes and so lower the spread of malaria.
That being said, his colleagues now refer to him as “The Cheese Man.” You can’t have everything.
Other research seems less instantly useful, and even more bizarre. A particularly odd example was “homoseksuele necrofilie bij de wilde eend.” Yes, it does say what you are probably thinking is says: Homosexual Necrophilia in the Wild Mallard Duck. I dread to think who might stumble upon this blog with that search term. The inspiration for the work came from the glass building the professor worked in; ducks would fly into the glass walls of the offices and die. Duck corpses littered the ground below the scientists office. Soon, other things happened which required investigation. If you want to know more you can look up the study; I myself was left wondering is the guy who lowered incidence of Malaria ended up as “The Cheese Guy” what is this bloke labelled as in the Academic community!? He did say that he got a lot of emails about related work in the field. Saw this and thought of you if you like. He did bring a stuffed Mallard with him though, so he can’t be too phased.
Other pioneering work by Dutch scientists included the simply titled “Sex in an MRI Scanner.” The presentation consisted of a very eccentric Dutch academic showing historical images of penises which were incorrect. His work revealed it’s actually more like a boomerang. You can see an English video of him explaining his work here, which includes a couple lying in a barrel shaped compost bin in a field. Naturally.
Of course the evening wasn’t all hard science. There was an Opera, “Atom and Eve.” Actually very well sung by a man dressed in a spotty morph-suit (sadly I can’t find a picture for you), the opera was about the innuendo filled tribulations of being an atom looking to bond with a human woman. The same guy played the woman, resplendent in wig and lab coat.
By 1.30am I was all set for the AWARDS. Streamed from Harvard University, they were even more bizarre than the evening so far. With regular paper aeroplane throwing breaks, children whose job it was to shout “please stop, you’re boring” to professors who spoke for more than their allotted time, and another science based opera, the whole event was a well organised and hilarious farce.
Below are the 2012 Prize winners, along with a few comments explaining some of them. The awards are presented by Noble prize winners, including a British one sporting a novel Union flag hat.
PSYCHOLOGY PRIZE: Anita Eerland and Rolf Zwaan [THE NETHERLANDS] and Tulio Guadalupe [PERU, RUSSIA, and THE NETHERLANDS] for their study “Leaning to the Left Makes the Eiffel Tower Seem Smaller”
Exactly what is says, and nothing more.
PEACE PRIZE: The SKN Company [RUSSIA], for converting old Russian ammunition into new diamonds.
ACOUSTICS PRIZE: Kazutaka Kurihara and Koji Tsukada [JAPAN] for creating the SpeechJammer — a machine that disrupts a person’s speech, by making them hear their own spoken words at a very slight delay.
I’m not entirely sure this works that well at all; it didn’t really work in the demonstration. This video showcases it, and is pretty funny in itself.
NEUROSCIENCE PRIZE: Craig Bennett, Abigail Baird, Michael Miller, and George Wolford [USA], for demonstrating that brain researchers, by using complicated instruments and simple statistics, can see meaningful brain activity anywhere — even in a dead salmon.
CHEMISTRY PRIZE: Johan Pettersson [SWEDEN and RWANDA]. for solving the puzzle of why, in certain houses in the town of Anderslöv, Sweden, people’s hair turned green.
Turns out it’s the copper piping.
LITERATURE PRIZE: The US Government General Accountability Office, for issuing a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports.
Given I’ve got to get the certification of my birth certificate certified by the Foreign Office before the Dutch authorities will accept it, I can sympathise with this award. A certification of the certification of a document. Honestly.
PHYSICS PRIZE: Joseph Keller [USA], and Raymond Goldstein [USA and UK], Patrick Warren, and Robin Ball [UK], for calculating the balance of forces that shape and move the hair in a human ponytail.
Apparently the inspiration for this research was the professor watching young female students going for runs around campus and noticing how their ponytails moved. And nothing else.
FLUID DYNAMICS PRIZE: Rouslan Krechetnikov [USA, RUSSIA, CANADA] and Hans Mayer [USA] for studying the dynamics of liquid-sloshing, to learn what happens when a person walks while carrying a cup of coffee.
ANATOMY PRIZE: Frans de Waal [The Netherlands and USA] and Jennifer Pokorny [USA] for discovering that chimpanzees can identify other chimpanzees individually from seeing photographs of their rear ends.
MEDICINE PRIZE: Emmanuel Ben-Soussan and Michel Antonietti [FRANCE] for advising doctors who perform colonoscopies how to minimize the chance that their patients will explode.
Apparently this really happens – Something to do with the concentration of chemical gasses causing the patient to explode. I’m not kidding. On the plus side, since this research no one has exploded during a colonoscopy. Job well done I’d say.