Ig Nobel Pursuits

/ by Maggie Wittlin /

Comedic awards honor offbeat science

Ignitaries.jpg Ig Nobelists gather for a group shot (courtesy Marc Abrahams)

John Mainstone has been watching tar drip since 1927. This may seem about as fruitful as waiting for that cartoon rabbit to get his Trix but, after 78 years, the researcher’s efforts have paid off. No, his funnel isn’t empty—in fact, only eight drops have fallen to date. Rather, Mainstone was honored with the most prestigious award he could have ever hoped to receive: the Ig Nobel prize in physics.

On the evening of October 6, hundreds of professors, students and seriously nerdy laymen gathered in Harvard University’s Sanders Hall for the Fifteenth 1st Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony. At the event, 10 awards were given to researchers from 12 countries, honoring “achievements that cannot or should not be reproduced.”

Mainstone, of Australia’s University of Queensland, shared the physics award with his late colleague, Thomas Parnell, for their demonstration that tar is a liquid that flows through a funnel at a rate of approximately one drop every nine years.

Viscous liquids dominated much of the ceremony: the prize for fluid dynamics was awarded to Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow of Germany and Finland and Jozsef Gal of Hungary for their report “Pressures Produced When Penguins Pooh—Calculations on Avian Defaecation.” The pair calculated the pressure with which penguins project their feces in order to keep waste away from their nest.

Not to be outdone, the University of Minnesota’s Edward Cussler and Brian Gettelfinger (also of the University of Wisconsin) won the chemistry prize for conducting an experiment to determine whether people can swim faster in syrup or water. While accepting their award, the swimsuit-clad researchers revealed their torsos, as well as the answer: People swim equally fast in either fluid.

The most amusing achievement honored was that of Gregg A. Miller, a Missouri native who won the medicine prize for his invention of Neuticles: artificial testicles for neutered animals. Neuticles are available for dogs, cats and even horses in three degrees of firmness. Accepting his award via video feed, Miller thanked his inspiration, his eunuch dog Buck, and revealed how long it took him to develop Neuticles.

“It took nearly two years to get the balls rolling,” he said.

The Ig Nobel prize in agricultural history was awarded to James Watson of Massey University—no, not the Nobel-winning DNA guy—for his study, “The Significance of Mr. Richard Buckley’s Exploding Trousers.” The report details the health hazards of sodium chlorate, which include the possibility that your pants could spontaneously combust.

The literature prize went to the Internet Entrepreneurs of Nigeria, who send out spam emails from “a cast of rich characters…each of whom requires just a small amount of expense money so as to obtain access to the great wealth to which they are entitled and which they would like to share with the kind person who assists them.”

The prize in economics went to Gauri Nanda of MIT for inventing an alarm clock that runs and hides, ensuring that its user actually gets out of bed. Five Australians received the biology prize for “painstakingly smelling and cataloging the peculiar odors produced by 131 different species of frogs when the frogs were feeling stressed,” and the nutrition prize was awarded to Dr. Yoshiro Nakamats of Tokyo for “photographing and retroactively analyzing every meal he consumed during a period of 34 years (and counting).” Inexplicably, the Ig Nobel Peace Prize was given to Claire Rind and Peter Simmons, of Newcastle University in Great Britain, for monitoring a single brain cell in a locust while the locust watched selected highlights from Star Wars.

The theme for this year’s awards was “infinity,” and every time the word was uttered the audience cheered and hollered like a delegation of Rocky Horror groupies. The motif manifested itself in the mini-opera entitled The Countess of Infinity and in the pre-show entertainment—a performance of “Infinite Chopsticks,” seemingly-endless variations on the well-known piano tune.

As tradition dictates, audience members continuously showered the stage with paper airplanes that were promptly swept up by two volunteers. The usual sweeper, Harvard Professor Roy J. Glauber, was unable to perform his yearly duties. He was busy dealing with the only award that trumps an Ig: the actual Nobel prize, which he won for physics two days earlier.

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Originally published October 7, 2005

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