The Ig-Nobel arts


Caitríona Farrell investigates the cutting-edge research of the 2009 Ig Nobel Prize winners

In the words of the genius Nobel Prize winner, Albert Einstein, “the whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.” The whole of science isn’t beyond comprehension, a fact proven by the existence of the Ig Nobel Prizes.

ignobel-prizeThe 2009 Ig Nobel Prizes, organised by Improbable Research, were awarded earlier this month at Sander’s Theatre in Harvard University, with the aim of providing and promoting “research that makes people laugh, and then think”.

This year, the Ig Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Stephan Bolliger and his colleagues from the University of Bern, Switzerland, for determining experimentally whether it is better to be smashed over the head with a full bottle of beer or an empty one. The scientific title of the work told a lot of the story: ‘Are Full or Empty Beer Bottles Sturdier and Does Their Fracture-Threshold Suffice to Break the Human Skull?’ Apparently, they’re both capable of breaking your skull if the bottle is big enough. Bolliger et al even went so far as to recommend prohibiting half litre beer bottles “in situations which involve risk of human conflicts”. There goes all of them then… The Chemistry prize, in a related vein, was awarded to researchers from Mexico for creating diamonds from tequila – making a popular night for alcohol-related research.

Women, too, were a common theme among the Ig Nobel Prizes this year. The Public Health Prize was awarded to scientists from Chicago for their joint effort in a unique and innovative brassiere. In the event of poisonous gas emergency, this smart invention can be quickly and readily converted into a pair of protective face masks, one serving the brassiere owner and the other to be given to a needy bystander on the scene.

The project, entitled ‘Garment Device Convertible to One or More Facemasks’, has us all eagerly awaiting this ultimate wonderbra’s arrival in our nearest La Senza – though for the male population, sadly one will need to be a ‘needy bystander’ to benefit from this latest fashion accessory.

It only gets better when physics is involved. Ever consider why a pregnant woman isn’t slightly off-balance? Some people clearly have been doing a lot of thinking on the matter. The prize for physics was presented to scientists from various American universities for their collective analysis determining the logic behind why women during pregnancy don’t tip over.

‘Fetal Load and the Evolution of Lumbar Lordosis in Bipedal Hominins’ can be traced back to predictions originally made by Charles Darwin, who postulated that bipedal posture (the ability to walk on two legs) and locomotion (the ability to move from place to place) were important distinguishing features of the earliest known hominids.

Bipedalism poses a unique challenge to pregnant women. To compensate for the extra weight of pregnancy, evolution has given rise to the S-curvature of the spine, and reinforcement of the lumbar vertebrae. Essentially, the female race has evolved over quite a long period of time to adapt to baby-weight. This is where biology meets physics and the two agree: equilibrium and a centre of mass are established because Mother Nature has done her share of talking and allows physics to take care of the rest

The Veterinary Medicine Prize also provided the usual mix of scientific discovery and irreverent humour. Catherine Doughlas and Peter Rowlison of Newcastle University were honoured with this prize, for showing that cows who have been given a name by their carers give more milk than cows who are left nameless.

Their study, ‘Exploring Stock Managers Perceptions of the Human-Animal Relationship on Dairy Farms and an Assocciation with Milk Production’, was a great success in the veterinary field, also incorporating aspects of social and behavioural science involved in the management of livestock. On farms where cows were called by name, milk yield was significantly higher than on farms where cows were not assigned names.

Elite winners of the Nobel Prizes in the past including Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Marie Curie and Sir Alexander Fleming have high contenders following in their footsteps, but we are now looking at two different science brackets. The Nobel Prizes represent the highbrow standards of science and diplomacy, while the Ig Nobel Prizes represent something more recent and fresh. In the modern day, though, both are part and parcel of scientific research, and both are valuable contributions.

As Alfred Nobel himself once said, “only passions, great passions can elevate the soul to great things.”