Improbable, Inane, Idiotic: The Ig Nobel Awards

Nobel laureates launching paper airplanes at the 2012 Ig Nobel Awards


We had the latest installment of the Ig Nobel Awards last week.
This was the 22nd year for the satirical awards, recognizing the abstruse, the trivial, and the bizarrely self-serving achievements from the world of scientific research. Classic winners from past seasons include the Economics Prize awarded to researchers from the University of New Mexico for Economic Evidence for Human Estrus (proof that lap dancers get higher tips when they’re ovulating); the Prize for Medicine given to Bnai Zion Medical Center for Termination of Intractable Hiccups with Digital Rectal Massage (yes, a finger up the bottom works wonders); and the Peace Prize awarded to researchers at  the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Bern, Switzerland who performed studies of the fracture threshold of the human skull to answer the question: Is it better to be smashed over the head with a full bottle of beer or with an empty bottle?

The Ig Nobel Awards (a play on the word ‘ignoble’ combined with the Nobel Prize) are presented each year at Harvard University by the scientific humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research. Presenters always include actual Nobel laureates, winners follow up with a set of public lectures at MIT. This year, as always, the food world was well represented.

In the past, the group has recognized such achievements in food science as:

  • a popcorn chromatography study
  • vanilla flavoring extracted from cow dung
  • the effects of different flavors of chewing gum on brainwave patterns
  • the sociology of the doughnut shop
  • liquid oxygen rocket fuel as a barbecue accelerent
  • beer froth and the mathematical law of exponential decay
  • the efficacy of Coca-Cola as a spermicide

This year’s awards maintained the traditionally high standards of ignobility.
The Literature Prize went to the U.S. Government General Accountability Office for Actions Needed to Evaluate the Impact of Efforts to Estimate Costs of Reports and Studies— described as ‘a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports.’ There was a winning study in the field of Applied Physics that calculates the balance of forces that shape and move the hair in a human ponytail, and a prize in Anatomy awarded to an international team in zoology, neuroscience, and ethology that confirmed the ability of chimpanzees to identify other chimpanzees individually when shown photographs of their rear ends.

The canon of food science was advanced by this year’s winner of the Fluid Dynamics Prize.
The Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of California, Santa Barbara published its experimentation with the complex interplay of motion between biomechanics and low-viscosity-liquid dynamics. It’s a thorough and systematic examination of speeds, liquid levels, fluid properties, and the particularities of containment vessels, observed through the lens of dynamical systems and fluid mechanics. In other words, they looked at why coffee sloshes when you walk with a cup.

See the complete list of winners from the past decade of Ig Nobel Awards at Annals of Improbable Research.


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