Tuesday, September 17, 2013

And the 2013 Ig Nobel prizes go to... Of reclining cows, swallowed shrews and other interesting achievements

The Nobel Prize is a set of annual international and prestigious awards handed out in a number of categories by Scandinavian committees in recognition of cultural and/or scientific advances. There also exists another similar - at least in name - and yet quite different set of prizes acknowledging innovativeness in certain accomplishments.

The Ig Nobel Prizes, according to their site, "honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative — and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology." The similarity ends with the "Nobel" moniker. Organized by the magazine "Annals of Improbable Research", the ceremony (there is a ceremony, too) is co-sponsored by the Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students and the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association.

The list this year, as in the past, could be and is classified as falling into the unique category:

Have to admit that this never occurred to me but obviously there are people who give this serious thought. The Medicine Prize went to Masateru Uchiyama, Gi Zhang, Toshihito Hirai, Atushi Amano, Hisashi Hashuda (Japan), Xiangyan Jin (China/Japan) and Masanori Niimi (Japan/UK) for assessing the effect of listening to opera on mice heart transplant patients. Who would have thought that mice are opera lovers. More to the point, one (me) wonders which are their favorites.

Somehow, the Psychology Prize, given to Laurent Begue, Oulmann Zerhouni, Baptiste Subra and Medhi Ourabah (France), Brad Bushman (USA/UK), the Netherlands/Poland) for confirming that people who think they are drunk also think they are more attractive, could be viewed as plausible i.e. one could believe while being under the influence of alcohol that visually they seem more visually alluring.

Can't say I've given much if any thought about the plight of dung beetles but obviously Marie Dacke (Sweden/Australia), Emily Baird, Eric Warrant (Sweden/Australia/Germany), Marcus Byrne (South Africa/UK) and Clarke Scholtz (South Africa) obviously have in their discovery for the Joint Prize in Biology and Astronomy that when dung beetles get lost, they can navigate their way home by looking at the milky way. I mean, thinking about this, it's not something that is of concern, at least for me. You?

The Safety Engineering Prize, won by the late Gustano Pizzo (US) definitely falls into the outside-the-box category for inventing an electro-mechanical system to trap airplane hijackers. The system drops a hijacker through trap doors, seals him (or her) into a package, then drops the hijacker through the airplane's specially-installed bomb bay doors through which he (or she) is parachuted to the ground where police, having been alerted by radio, await his arrival. Presumably, the airplane(s) would have to have a trap door and bomb bay doors on board for this to work. Somehow, the vision of a bunch of police cars chasing the plane in order to ensure the capture of the hijacker springs to mind, yelling "we got him...we got him!". Sort-of a keystone-esque quality. Moving on...

For their discovery that some people would be physically capable of running across the surface of a pond - if those people and that pond were on the moon, Alberto Minetti, (Italy/UK/Denmark/Switzerland, Yuri Ivanenko (Italy/Russia/France), Germana Cappellini, Francesco lacquaniti (Italy) and Nadia Dominici (Italy/Switzerland), took home the prize in the Physics category. Thinking further - entirely too much time on my hands - one would have to assume that there were or could be ponds on the moon and if so, one would have to be motivated to run across the surface for a reason - say if an alien creature was pursuing one. Moving on again...

Onions have always given me a reason to tear up (injecting a small (very) touch of comedy) and this is confirmed with the bestowing of the Chemistry Prize awarded to Shinsuke Imai, Nobuaki Tsuge, Muneaki Tomotake, Yoshiaki Nagatome, Hidehiko Kumgai (Japan) and Toshiyuki Nagata (Japan/Germany), for discovering that the biochemical process by which onions make people cry is even more complicated than scientists previously realised. Related to this and as a matter of interest, chewing gum while peeling onions will diminish the tearing effect. Really.

Not sure if this is news that we need to know or even want to know but be that as it may, Brian Crandall (US) and Peter Stahl (Canada/US) won their Archeology award for observing how the bones of a swallowed dead shrew dissolve inside the human digestive system. They did this by parboiling a dead shrew, swallowing the shrew without chewing, and then carefully examining everything excreted during subsequent days — all so they could see which bones would dissolve inside the human digestive system, and which bones would not. Moving on while trying to avoid the gagging instinct...

The Peace Prize went to Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus, for making it illegal to applaud in public and to the Belarus State Police, for arresting a one-armed man for applauding.

This is something we all (at least me) would never have contemplated or even given it a lot of thought but obviously Bert Tolkamp (UK/the Netherlands), Marie Haskell, Fritha Langford. David Roberts, and Colin Morgan (UK) who won the Probability Prize, for making two related discoveries. The longer a cow has been lying down, the more likely that cow will soon stand up, and  once a cow stands up, you cannot easily predict how soon that cow will lie down again. Logically, at least in my mind and at some point depending on the age of a cow and whether or not it could be suffering from arthritis or rheumatism, a cow will eventually stand up to stretch her legs, after which a short walk, will lay down again.

So Kasian Bhanganada, Tu Chayavatana, Chumporn Pongnumkul, Anunt Tonmukayakul, Piyasakol Sakolsatayadorn, Krit Komaratal, and Henry Wilde (Thailand) did their research and received the award in the Public Health category by studying the medical techniques of penile re-attachment after amputations (often by jealous wives). They also recommended these techniques except in cases where the amputated penis had been partially eaten by a duck. Ducks eat penises? Go figure!

And so there you have it. Who knows what exciting and at the very least, thought-provoking discoveries will be made next year!

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