Ig Nobel Prize Winner Dr. Elena Bodnar demonstrates her invention (a brassiere that can quickly convert into a pair of protective face masks) assisted by Nobel laureates Wolfgang Ketterle (left), Orhan Pamuk, and Paul Krugman (right). Photo credit: Alexey Eliseev, 2009 Ig Nobel Ceremony (from Improbable Research website)

You know how awed you are when the real Nobel Prizes are announced—these prizes honor incredible people who did ground-breaking research that changed the world, saved lives, really made a difference and all sorts of other good stuff.  Of course, at the time they did their research no one, including, most of the time, the researchers themselves, realized that what they did or discovered was indeed going to be earth- shattering.

When I was doing my residency in Internal Medicine at UCSF one of my colleagues, Stanley Prusiner,  discovered the prion, now known to be the infectious agent that causes degenerative brain diseases such as Creutzfeldt Jacob and Mad Cow disease.  At the time, we all thought he was a bit batty to be studying proteins that he said could propagate and cause disease.   He won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1997 for that improbable research.

You may or may not know that there is an organization that exists to honor the doing of improbable research. It is called Improbable Research. Here’s why they do it:

“Our goal is to make people laugh, then make them think. We also hope to spur people’s curiosity, and to raise the question: How do you decide what’s important and what’s not, and what’s real and what’s not — in science and everywhere else?”

We have all heard people complain “what a waste of taxpayer’s dollars” when they hear about a particularly esoteric type of research.  These are the folks who think only good research should be done and paid for – you know, the type of research we all know is good when, years later, it turns out to have made a difference.  The problem, of course, is that we usually do not know what line of research is going to be the one that ultimately yields the big breakthrough. Isaac Asimov got it right when he said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but, ‘That’s funny…”


And the winners are…

So on that note, I present you with the IgNobel Prize winners for 2011 (partial list):

  • The Biology Prize was awarded to Darryl Gwynne and David Rentz for discovering that Australian jewel beetles like to mate with discarded brown beer bottles, called stubbies, (they don’t like green wine bottles though).  Here is how Professor Gwynne describes what he observed:

“It was just co-incidental that my area of research was Darwinian sexual selection and how sex differences evolve, and here was a classic example taking place in front of my eyes where males were making mating errors. It was very obvious the beetles were trying to mate. These beetles have enormous genitalia, and they’re large to start with – over two inches long. “The sad thing was that these beetles were dying; they wouldn’t leave the bottles alone. They’d fall off them exhausted.It was almost certainly the visual colour – the bottle looked like a giant female. And also in the reflectance patterns – there were stipples on the bottles that resembled marks on the females’ wing covers.”

Male buprestid beetles take a fancy to brown “stubbies”, but will ignore green wine bottles (from BBC.com)
  • The Chemistry Prize went to Makoto Imai and colleagues for figuring out the ideal density of airborne wasabi to awaken people in case of a fire of another emergency (think of the wasabi brain thunderbolt you experienced the last time you accidentally put too much of the green stuff on your California roll). A patent is pending for the Wasabi Fire Alarm.
  • Need to pee? Beware of the decisions you make….The IgNobel in Medicine went to Mirjam Tuk and colleagues and Peter Snyder et al for their work elucidating the impact of a strong urge to urinate on decision making. Here is a link to their papers in case you want to learn more:
  • The Literature Prize went to John Perry of Stanford University, USA, for his Theory of Structured Procrastination, which says: To be a high achiever, always work on something important, using it as a way to avoid doing something that’s even more important.  [Ah, I get it never waste your time of something unimportant, that way you will always be doing something important – or something like that.]
  • It is often said that research studies with negative findings can’t get published.  Well here is one that not only got published but even won the Ig Prize in Physiology. Kudos to Anna Wilkinson, Natalie Sebanz, Isabella Mandl and Ludwig Huber for their study “No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise” (published in Current Zoology, vol. 57, no. 4, 2011. pp. 477-84)
  • Here is my all time favorite – Philippe Perrin and Herman Kingma (and teams) won the Physics Prize for elucidating why discus throwers become dizzy, and why hammer throwers don’t.  It’s the spinning.  Discus throwers do and hammer throwers don’t!
  • The Mathematics Prize was awarded to a group of people who each were brave enough to try to perform the most important calculation in the world – the one that determines the end of it.  Here they are in chronologic order and as described on the Improbable Research website: Dorothy Martin of the USA (who predicted the world would end in 1954),Pat Robertson of the USA (who predicted the world would end in 1982), Elizabeth Clare Prophet of the USA (who predicted the world would end in 1990), Lee Jang Rim of KOREA (who predicted the world would end in 1992), Credonia Mwerinde of UGANDA (who predicted the world would end in 1999), and Harold Camping of the USA (who predicted the world would end on September 6, 1994, and later predicted that the world will end on October 21, 2011), for teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations.
  • John Senders of the University of Toronto won the Public Safety Prize for conducting a series of safety experiments in which a person drives an automobile on a major highway while a visor repeatedly flaps down over his face, blinding him (whaat??).  Take a look:  VIDEO.  Senders, who performed the experiment himself says “It was a truly exciting and unforgettable experience.”
  • Finally, there is the IgNobel Peace Prize.  And the winner is (drumroll please): Arturas Zuokas, the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, for demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with an armored tank.  VIDEO


And from the past

Although we are all going to have to wait until the fall of 2012 for another bumper crop of IgNobel Prize winners, I thought it would be fun to end this post my sharing one of my favorite winners from the past:

Ig Nobel Prize Winner Dr. Elena Bodnar demonstrates her invention (a brassiere that can quickly convert into a pair of protective face masks) assisted by Nobel laureates Wolfgang Ketterle (left), Orhan Pamuk, and Paul Krugman (right). Photo credit: Alexey Eliseev, 2009 Ig Nobel Ceremony (from Improbable Research website)

That’s it folks!