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Seriously Hilarious Science … And the 2012 Award for Most Improbable Research Goes To…

In case you missed it, the 2012 “Ig® Nobel” awards ceremony was held on September 20th at Harvard University’s Sanders Theater. What are the Ig Nobel awards, you might ask?

The Stinker, aka the Tumbled Thinker, is the mascot of The Ig awards

The Stinker, aka the Tumbled Thinker, is the official mascot of The Ig Awards

According to their mission statement, “The Ig Nobel Prizes 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.” In other words, very often, the very kind of research that just makes you wonder why the study was undertaken in the first place.

The Ig Nobel awards were created by the editors of the Annals of Improbable Research magazine, also known as AIR, who freely admit to being “AIRheads.”

According to their website,, award winners are chosen from well over 5,000 nominees, and are selected by the Ig Nobel Board of Governors, a group “composed of scientists (including several Nobel Laureates), science writers, athletes, public officials, and other individuals of greater or lesser eminence. By tradition, for balance, on the final day of deliberations a random passerby is invited help make the decision.”

With tongue firmly planted in cheek, their website details “a variety of momentously inconsequential events” that could be expected had you attended the evening ceremony.

Among them:

  • “Several Nobel laureates will physically hand the Ig Nobel Prizes to the new winners.
  • Two grand Paper Airplane Deluges, one at ceremony’s beginning, the other at the midpoint.
  • Returning Ig Nobel Prize winners:

–  Dr. Elena Bodnar (invention of an emergency bra that can be quickly converted into a pair of protective face masks)

–   Mahadevan (mathematico-physics analysis of how sheets get wrinkled)

–  Dr. Richard Gustafson (failure of self-administered automobile-engine-supplied-electric-shock treatment for rattlesnake envenomation resulting from patient’s pet rattlesnake biting the patient on the lip)

  • The 24/7 Lectures, in which several of the world’s top thinkers will each explain her or his subject twice: 
FIRST: a complete technical description in TWENTY-FOUR (24) SECONDS
 AND THEN: a clear summary that anyone can understand, in SEVEN (7) WORDS.
  • The Traditional ‘Welcome, Welcome’ Speech.
  • The Traditional ‘Goodbye, Goodbye’ Speech.
  • The Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobel-Laureate Contest.”

2012 Ig Nobel Winners

As has been the case for the past 22 years, “Ig” prizes were awarded in 10 categories, ranging from medicine to physics to literature. So, who and what was honored and celebrated at this year’s annual gala event?

Among my favorites of the 2012 honors and honorees were:

1)  An ACOUSTICS PRIZE to Japan’s Kazutaka Kurihara and Koji Tsukada for building the “SpeechJammer” a prototype machine that creates a milli-second delay in auditory feedback to disrupt a person’s speech without causing any physical discomfort or lasting effects, and which has no affect on anyone but the person actually speaking. Their paper discusses “practical applications,” which might include facilitating and controlling discussions. (Think about that, next time you’re in a business meeting and want someone to stop talking already!)

2)  A FLUID DYNAMICS PRIZE for their paper, “Walking With Coffee: Why Does It Spill?, awarded to Rouslan Krechetnikov [USA, RUSSIA, CANADA] and Hans Mayer [USA], for systematically breaking down this well-known phenomena. (Perhaps Starbucks can do something with this research…?)

3)  CHEMISTRY PRIZE to Johan Pettersson [SWEDEN and RWANDA] who investigated the mystery of why the normally blonde inhabitants of certain newer homes in Sweden were plagued by their hair unexpectedly turning green. The problem had remained a mystery, especially after copper levels in the drinking water, originally suspected to be the culprit, were deemed to be normal. Pettersson’s research uncovered that the “fatal” combination occurred only when using hot water, stripping the copper from the new shower pipes, which apparently lacked proper insulation.

(Actually, I kind of prefer the 2011 CHEMISTRY PRIZE, which went to Makoto Imai and his team, for identifying the exact right amount of horseradish required to successfully waft through the air and awaken people in case of emergency, and then filing a U.S. patent for their “wasabi alarm” system.)

4)  A 2012 LITERATURE PRIZE to the US Government’s Accountability Office (GAO), for their paper, “Actions Needed to Evaluate the Impact of Efforts to Estimate Costs of Reports and Studies,” which the Ig Nobel committee describes as “a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports.” (If I were a paper-company sales rep, I’d certainly be calling on this prized account!)

5)  And a PRIZE IN MEDICINE to Emmanuel Ben-Soussan and Michel Antonietti [FRANCE] for advising doctors on how to minimize the chance of their patients exploding during a colonoscopy. (I knew there was a good reason why I’d been avoiding this procedure…)

Personally, I think none of these exceptional works compare with last year’s PEACE PRIZE winner, however. That award went to Arturas Zuokas, the mayor of Vilnius, LITHUANIA for his study, which characterizes as having demonstrated that “the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with an armored tank.”

Had You Attended This Year’s Ceremony

Although you may have missed this year’s festivities, I feel it worth republishing their advice on what to wear and bring to the event, which I have lifted, in part, from the Improbable Research website:

WHAT TO WEAR: We suggest you wear clothing, It’s good to wear clothing that is, like you, colorful… This is the night to unearth your old wedding gown, uniform, suit of armor, labcoat or longjohns… “

WHAT TO BRING: Paper, paper, paper. Paper to make into paper airplanes. Additional paper to give to those around you who may have forgotten to bring their own paper, and who as a consequence of their own neglect are forlornly wishing they could join in the thrill and intellectual romance of making and throwing paper airplanes. SAFETY FIRST, please! Paper airplanes should be thrown at the safety-equipment-laden individual onstage who is the Designated Paper Airplane Target.”

I should further point out that in addition to including not one, but two, officially designated paper airplane deluges, the entire event seems exceedingly well orchestrated… up to and including allowing parties of five or more to register themselves as an “official audience delegation” to be duly “celebrated during the event”; and likewise, reminding those of us that can’t make it to the actual ceremony that broadcast-watching parties will be formed around globe — which they’d be happy to help publicize.

Also worth knowing… this annual event has taken place for the past 22 years, and most years included a central theme, this year, “The Universe”. As pointed out in this year’s souvenir play bill, two years ago, the theme was “Bacteria”, and that event was attended by “several trillion celebrity bacteria … seated in or on the audience. Many of them are still here. See if you can spot them.”

Seriously Hilarious … In a Manner of Speaking

Lest you think the research, however, is all in fun, you’d be wrong. Dead wrong. Take the study by Craig Bennett, et al., who set out to prove the dangers of not correcting for false positive fMRI signals, by studying the incidence of said signals emitting from the brain of a DEAD salmon.

Their study involved showing the salmon a series of 15 photographs of humans in varying social situations and “asking” the salmon to determine what emotion the individual in the photo must have been experiencing.

Responses were measured and analyzed using methods so complex, I fail to understand them completely, but interestingly, the team recorded 16 significant false-positive responses out of the 8,064 they recorded, from a dead fish, proving the importance of correcting for the errors that are bound to show up with repeat testing.

Bennet is quoted in numerous publications as saying, “If you have a 1% chance of hitting a bulls eye when playing darts and you throw one dart, then you have a 1% chance of hitting the target. If you have 30,000 darts then, well, let’s just say that you are probably going to hit the target a few times. The same is true in neuro-imaging.”

“The more chances you have to find a result, the more likely you are to find one, even by chance. We, as a scientific field, have accepted statistical methods to correct for this, but not all scientists use these methods in their neuro-imaging analysis.”

Bennett goes on to explain the impact his study has had, “In the year before our work was released, around 30% of fMRI papers did not use proper statistical correction methods in their analysis. Now, that number is less than 10%, and we feel that the salmon paper played a small but significant role in making that happen.”

And, for further validation of the importance of all this seemingly improbable research, look no further than the 2012 Physics category winner, whose study on the effect of jogging on the movement of a pony tail, at first glance might seem to be research for the sake of pure research. But, as the author points out, may have numerous real-world applications, including impacting how to produce better fiberglass insulation that doesn’t settle or compact down, over time.

In fact, given the true importance of the research, and the 60-second maximum time limit to explain their study during the actual ceremonies, each winner is allowed to present their paper’s findings at an informal lecture series, at MIT, a couple of days after the event.

For a PDF copy of the evening’s events, as well as a peek at the recording of the live broadcast, click here

Related Publications

If the recording isn’t enough, there is always more where that came from. According to the Improbable Research website, this same group is responsible for publishing a variety of other publications, which include, but are not limited to, an open-access magazine, blog, and website, TV series, newsletter and books.

They indicate that the magazine as well as all media are produced by “the very same people who from 1955 – 1994 founded and edited the Journal of Irreproducible Results.” Their current magazine publishes 6 times a year, and is culled from over 20,000 science, medical, technical and academic journals. It is offered in multiple formats, which they describe this way:

“PDF — Download it. Free.

High-Quality PDF — Crisp. Shining. Inspirational. Inexpensive.

Genuine Paper & Ink — Lovingly printed and snail-mailed. Perfect for the loo.”

Past issues of their magazine are also downloadable, with such classics as “The Need for Double Strength Placebos” or “Does It Rain More Often on Weekends”. To learn more, see:

“Improbable Research”, “Ig” and the tumbled thinker logo pictured above are trademarks of Improbable Research, Inc. All are registered with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office.


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This entry was posted on September 26, 2012 by in Business, Ripped From the Headlines and tagged , , , , .
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