In a lecture hall filled with whizzing paper airplanes, Ig winners gave 5-minute presentations on their award-winning research. And moderator Marc Abrahams and his slew of audience assistants made sure they kept to time. With a complicated setup only MIT could engineer — a man and his wristwatch, a row of people elbowing each other, a woman with a loud voice to announce each used minute, and a child for a final alarm who walked up to the presenters and shouted “Please Stop, I’m Bored” at their stomachs until heeded — distinguished scientists from across the world had to toe the laughter-ridden line.
First came the winners of the Veterinary Medicine prize from the UK’s Newcastle University, with their study finding cows with names instead of numbers produce about 68 gallons more per lactation.
“Obviously it’s not the name that’s the key, it’s the complete package,” explained Peter Rowlinson, who said that his and Catherine Douglas’s work showed “TLC is making a positive difference” by reducing the stress of human-cow interaction. Other examples of such care include tickling, for, as Rowlinson noted at the outset of his presentation, “It’s always worthwhile doing a bit of tickling.”
The slew of presenters included physics winner Katherine Whitcome (University of Cincinnati) for her team’s analysis revealing why pregnant women don’t tip over (they move their center of mass an average 3.2 centimeters by leaning backwards, so that the center of mass sits over their hips), and Elena Bodnar, for her team’s development of a brassiere that transforms into a pair of face masks in an emergency, such as a fire, dust storm, or biological attack.
“It’s effective, it’s economical, and most importantly, it’s always available,” Bodnar said, adding that the device only takes 25 seconds to implement: 5 seconds for the woman to remove it and apply one cup to her face, and 20 seconds for her to decide “who is the lucky man to get the other one.” She graciously provided a chart of useful recommendations, for both ladies and gentlemen, to assist in decision-making and mask-winning behavior.
By far the longest-running study was that of Donald Unger (Thousand Oaks, California), who cracked the knuckles of his left hand twice daily for more than 60 years to confirm or disprove his mother’s claim that doing so would lead to arthritis.
“The time has come to check it out,” he said. “I see no difference. Mother, you were wrong!”
When asked why he chose to only test his left hand, he replied “in case my mother was right, I didn’t want to blow my good hand.” He cracked his knuckles twice for the audience. Whether the fact that he always talks when cracking his knuckles affects his results remains unknown.
“Chortle”: Coined by a Mathematician for a Reason
Never let anyone tell you MIT people are socially-inept melancholiacs. Audience members kept up a barrage of hoots, screeches, and tongue-in-cheek questions the whole two hours, ranging from one young woman asking the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México team — who created diamonds from tequila — how much tequila she needed to give her boyfriend before he gave her a diamond, to another man’s question for the UK team: “If I don’t name my next dog, will he produce less . . . stuff?”
Perhaps the most ironic presentation, the Ig Nobel Peace Prize-winning study by researchers at the University of Bern, Switzerland, concluded that, in a pub brawl, an empty beer bottle will inflict more damage than a full one, because it requires less energy to break and has a larger fracture range than a full one. A full beer bottle is sturdier due to the strain on the bottle from the contents’ carbonation, explained Stephan Bolliger, the study’s lead author.
“If you are intending to fight with a beer bottle,” Bolliger concluded, “I advise you to first drink, then hit.”
When one student in the audience asked whether a full bottle is in fact better because it will deliver a more forceful blow to the opponent’s skull, the moderator asked him why he was taking the hitter’s, not the receiver’s, point of view.
“Could we have your fingerprints when you come to Switzerland?” Bolliger asked the student.
The Ig Nobel Awards are given by the Improbable Research organization, which also publishes a magazine and produces a Web-based TV series, as well as “The Big Bank Opera” (premiered with the 1999 Ig awards) . . . among other things.