I have been aware of the Ig-Nobel Prizes - “...actual Nobel Prize winners giving away prizes to real scientists for doing fucked-up things...” - since they started holding them in 1992. The annual Saturnalia might be best described as an American version of an English public school farce, accented by abysmal jokes delivered by the normally humorless monks of science. And as a non-scientist, watching this fete is a bit like witnessing an octopus play the piano. Why on earth would anyone watch such a thing? Well, because wouldn't you want to see an octopus play the piano? At least once.
Shortly after 7:00 pm on Thursday, 12 September, 2019, Professor Nicole Sharp (creator of the world's most popular fluid dynamics web site) and Physics Professor Melissa Franklin (co-discover of the Higgs Boson) stepped to the microphone at Harvard's Sanders Theater. They then proceeded to direct 1,100 intelligent audience members to behave they way they have seen others behave when they are having fun. They wear funny hats and bizarre accessories.
And they now unleashed a 36 second barrage of paper airplanes at a human target. Thus began the first 29th annual Ig-Nobel awards ceremony, illegitimate step child to the most prestigious awards in science – The Nobel Prizes.
At the time of Alfred Nobel's death in 1896, almost nobody was killed anywhere on earth without at least few Kroner finding their way into the pocket of the infamous Swedish “merchant of death”. Luckily for the world of Science, a guilty Nobel posthumously donated 94% of his massive fortune to the creation of the Nobel prizes, each of which comes with around a million dollars in cash.
By comparison, the winners of the low rent alternative Ig-Noble prizes for 2019 got a certificate and $10 trillion Zimbabwean bill – real but no longer remediable. But then, the Ig-Nobel winners never killed anybody. That we know of.
Next to step up to the microphone was author Karen Hopkin, a Phd from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and creator of the “Stud Muffins of Science Calendar” ("If you have a Y-chromosome and a PhD, you could be Doctor December”). She introduced the “Air Head In-Chief”, editor of the bi-monthly “Annals of Improbable Research”, inventor of the Ig-Nobel awards, and practitioner of the most unlikely business model ever developed, Harvard graduate and “manly little mallomar”, Marc Abrahams (above). In 2004, he admitted to the London Guardian, “It's a little embarrassing that it took me about 12 years to describe what I do....First, it makes people laugh, and then makes them think.”
The first award this night, the 2019 Ig-Nobel Prize for Medicine, went to Doctor Mario Negri, head of the Laboratory of Lifestyle Epidemiology at the Milan Institute for Pharmacological Research. Between 2003 and 2006 Doctor Negri published three studies quantifying the defense offered by real Italian pizza against various cancers, “...if the pizza is eaten in Italy.”.
In his 90 second acceptance speech, Doctor Negri attempted to explain that the lower Italian rates of cancer were an indicator of the Mediterranean diet, not the local consumption of melted cheese and processed meats. Or, at least he tried to, until he was interrupted by an 8 year old child. She was the “charming....Miss Sweeite Poo,” and time keeper for the awards, who, after a minute and a half, shouted at Doctor Negri, “Please stop. I'm bored”, until he did.
Next came the prize for Medical Education, which was awarded jointly to behavior biologist Karen Pryor, animal trainer Theresa McKeon, and orthopedic surgeon and border collier lover, Dr. Martin Levy, for their joint paper advocating the training of surgeons using the same methods used to train dogs – primarily a combination of kibble and clicker. In teaching interns, according to Karen Pryor, “... experienced surgeons... make it quite hard, which leads to tension and fear of failure. With our method, they learn to use the tools (scalpels and forceps) with great confidence and calmness..."
The Biology Ig-Nobel was awarded to researchers from Singapore, China, Kraków and Gdnask Poland, Hanover, Germany and Vienna, Austria. It took this international collection of biologists and physicists, using “...highly sensitive quantum sensors” to discover “...magnetic deposits with strikingly different behavior in...” living and demised American cockroaches.
They even held a dead cockroach against a refrigerator door. It stuck, while a live cockroach fell directly to the floor and escaped. You might think it would have been safe to assume the internal juice of cockroaches behaved differently after death then before, but now we have scientific proof. However, it cannot be said that “no cockroaches were harmed in this experiment.”
The Anatomy Prize was awarded to two doctors from Toulouse, France. Doctor Roger Mieusset, (above, right fg) was the new Editor-in-Chief of “Basic and Clinical Andrology” - the study of diseases which make men feel sick and behave like children - and Dr. Bourras Bengoudifa, who is Dr. Mieusset's “accomplice”. Their 2007 study - “Thermal Asymmetry of the Human Scrotum,” took the temperature of both testicles of clothed postal workers, 20 to 52 years of age, walking and standing, and discovered that the right testicle was consistently 3 hundredths of a degree centigrade warmer. As Dr. Mieusset said during his acceptance speech, “We all knew that French delivery men were cool. Now we know how cool.” Personally, I hope the relationship between the right and left handedness to right and left testical-ness will be the subject of future studies.
And just as a side note; Dr. Mieusset had originally achieved fame back in the 1980's when he invented a uniquely French style of birth control, i.e. ,underpants with an internal pocket for the testicles, intended to keep them just warm enough to 'cook' their sperm. There is no record that this attempt at male birth control was a success, but at least he was trying.
The Ig-Nobel Chemistry prize was awarded to 68 year old Dr. Shigeru Watanabe (above), and a team of dentists for their 1995 study, “Estimation of the Total Saliva Volume Produced Per Day in Five-Year-Old Children.” On stage with Dr. Watanabe were his three sons, who, along with 32 other innocent subjects of both genders, had produced spit for the advancement of their father's career. By the way, the result was an average of “about 500 milliliters” per day – approximately a full 12 ounce soda bottle – something of interest to professionals wrist deep in this deluge.
The subject of the Ig-Nobel prize in Economics was dirty money, specifically the 2013 study, “Money and Transmission of Bacteria”. This was the brainchild of Professor Andreas Voss (above, left), head of the Department of Medical Microbiology and Infection Control, at Canisius-Wilhelmina Hospital and Radboud University, in Nijmegen, Netherlands. He convinced his son. Timothy Voss (above, right) and Doctor Habip Gedik, Chief of the Department of Infectious Diseases and Clinical Microbiology, at the Okmeydanı Training and Research Hospital, Istanbul, Turkey, to join him in this semi-serious, semi-whimsy of an investigation.
Random bank notes (American, Canadian and Euro dollars, Romanian Leu, Indian rupee and Croatian Kuna) were first sterilized. They were then soaked in a solution infused with various bacteria, and then allowed to dry for between 3 and 6 hours. The dirtiest currency was discovered to be Romanian, allowing the bacteria to survive over a day on dry Leu bills, while the Croatian Kuna was found to be the cleanest currency. However, Dr. Voss points out, “The rupee and the kuna felt dirty but weren’t. Grimy looking banknotes are not always sources for infection”. Also, bacteriophobes should consider that the current exchange rate is 10 Kuna to about $1.40.
Stretching the definition of Peace almost to the breaking point, the Ig-Nobel Peace Prize for 2019 went to scientists in the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, China and the United States for the 2012 research paper entitled “The Pleasurability of Scratching an Itch: A Psychophysical and Topographical Assessment.”
The Psychological Ig-Nobel prize for 2019 was a double award. Both went to German Social Psychologist, Dr. Fritz Strack, of the University of Wurzburg. The first half of the award was for his 1988 paper, titled “Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: a non-obtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis.” In this study Dr. Strack proved that test subjects rated more “Far Side” cartoons, by Gary Larson, as funny if they had a pen in their mouths.
The second half of the prize was also awarded to Dr. Strack for his 2017 paper, ““From Data to Truth in Psychological Science. A Personal Perspective”. In this paper Dr. Strack reran the same experiment to prove the test subjects did not rate more “Far Side” cartoons as funny, no matter what, if anything, they had in their mouths. Dr. Strack attempted to explain the discrepancy by pointing out subjects in the second experiment were aware they were being video taped, thus putting the lie to the entire field of “Reality Television”.
The final Ig-Nobel prize for the evening was the Physics award. It went to researchers in the United States, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and the United Kingdom, for a 2018 paper simply entitled, “How Do Wombats Make Cubed Poo”.
Because, you see, they actually do. It is exactly like a square peg coming out of a round hole. To illustrate this process, all of the recipients showed up in the Sanders Theater dressed as various parts of this mysterious process.
The ceremony ended with the traditional pointless photo opportunity, where everyone was showered with self esteem. And then Marc Abrahams offered a final word for the winners and those who had hopes of winning in the future - “Better luck next time”.