Scientists who unlocked the inner secrets of dog fleas, crisps and tangled string swept the tongue-in-cheek annual Ig Nobel Prizes.
Last Updated: 12:13PM BST 03 Oct 2008
Toshiyuki Nakagaki [centre], of Hokkaido University, and fellow researchers sing their Ig Nobel Prize acceptance speech in three-part harmony , after they were awarded the Cognitive Science Prize Photo: AP
The awards, a light-hearted alternative to Scandinavia’s Nobel Prizes for otherwise serious researchers, were presented at Harvard University in Massachussetts.
More than 1,000 people, including seven of the 10 laureates, attended a ceremony that in irreverent spirit also featured sword-swallowing, paper airplanes, and an eight-year-old girl tasked with stopping boring speeches.
Three French scientists from the Ecole National Veterinaire de Toulouse took the biology prize for establishing that fleas living on dogs jump further than those resident on cats – 20 centimeters further, on average.
Potentially more controversial was the work of an Italian-British duo who won the nutrition prize for their study “Auditory Cues in Modulating the Perceived Crispness and Staleness of Potato Chips.”
The ground-breaking study first published in the Journal of Sensory Studies involved “electronically modifying the sound of a potato chip to make the person chewing the chip believe it to be crisper and fresher than it really is,” Ig Nobel organizers said.
The Ig event, produced by science humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research, honours the hair-brained efforts of a brainy profession in hope it can “make people laugh, and then make them think.”
Winning an Ig is perhaps not every scientist’s burning ambition. Winners even have to pay their own way to Harvard to accept the honour.
But after 18 years the event remains a hit among those who believe science needs a more popular image.
This year’s physics Ig Nobel fell to US academics providing mathematical proof that hair, string, or anything else of the kind, will inevitably become tangled in knots – a process termed “spontaneous knotting of an agitated string.”
There was even more agitation over the chemistry prize, awarded jointly to rival teams – one from the United States which determined Coca-Cola to be an effective spermicide and one from Taiwan which proved it is not.
Startling discoveries were also rewarded in the fields of peace, archaeology, medicine, cognitive science, economics and literature.
A team from the University of New Mexico, in the US south-west, ventured far from their desks for bizarre research that won the economics prize on the relationship between lap dancer’s ovulatory cycles and earnings.
Meanwhile, the peace prize – the most keenly watched in the real Nobel awards – was awarded to the people of Switzlerland and their country’s Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology “for adopting the legal principle that plants have dignity.”
Handing out awards was William Lipscomb, the genuine 1976 Nobel laureate for chemistry, also doubling Thursday, at the age of 89, as the hero in the “Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobel-Laureate Contest.”
The prizes themselves consist of dull plaques made up in keeping with the night’s party theme – redundancy.
“This Ig Nobel Prize is awarded in the year 2008 to an Ig Nobel Prize Winner, in recognition of the Ig Nobel Prize Winners’ Ig Nobel Prize winning achievement,” reads the plaque.
Previous prizes have been awarded to researchers who discovered that Viagra helps hamsters overcome jet-lag, studied how sheets wrinkle, and uncovered homosexual necrophiliac behaviour in the mallard duck.
Improbable Research publishes its magazine every two months and runs a blog on the website improbable.com, which also hosted a live webcast of Thursday’s ceremony.
In a wry comment, the website noted that Americans were presented with two events – back to back – on Thursday “that might be surprisingly similar:” the whacky science event, then the televised debate between vice presidential candidates Joseph Biden and Sarah Palin.