A Wasabi Alarm and the End of the World: the 2011 Ig Nobel Awards
Yawning tortoises? Beetles mating with beer bottles? Structured procrastination (doing something important to avoid doing something even more important)? These were just some of the quirky inquiries that netted their researcher(s) the now-coveted Ig Nobel Award, bestowed every year for achievements that “first make people laugh and then make them think.”
The 21st First Annual Ig Nobel Award Ceremony was held Thursday September 29 at Harvard University’s venerable Sanders Theater, a venue more accustomed to hosting piano concertos than paper airplanes. Emceed by Marc Abrahams, publisher/editor of The Annals of Improbable Research which sponsors the event, the participants included six genuine Nobel Laureates who handed out the awards and generally cavorted on stage during one of the evening’s highlights: the mini-opera.
Despite the seeming silliness of some of the studies, further reflection reveals that most of them serve a more serious purpose. In the case of the star-crossed male beetles, who apparently find a certain brown beer bottle to resemble a massive (and thus presumably voluptuous) female beetle, the research showed that “[i]mproperly disposed of beer bottles not only present a physical and ‘visual’ hazard in the environment, but also could potentially cause great interference with the mating system of a beetle species.” The authors also noted that their investigation demonstrated that when mating mistakes are made, it’s usually males who make them. One doesn’t need to be a beer bottle to vouch for that.
While most of the prizes are based on papers published in peer-reviewed journals, some awards honor ingenious patents and problem-solving or simply acknowledge large-scale human folly. As a “minor domo” in the show (I like to think of myself as a “Nobel Laureate wrangler”), I got to experience the wasabi alarm firsthand and I can attest to its efficacy (believe me, one would not sleep through it). The collection of diviners who forecast many different end-of-the-world dates were noted for embodying the pitfalls of mathematical carelessness. And Arturas Zuokas, the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, was recognized for resolving the issue of double-parked luxury cars by running them over with a tank.
The following is a list of this year’s Ig-worthy achievements. For the complete list of winners and references, as well as a link to the YouTube full video of the show, please visit www.improbable.com.
CHEMISTRY PRIZE: For the invention of the wasabi alarm (airborne wasabi [pungent horseradish] utilized for waking people in the case of fire or other emergency).
MEDICINE PRIZE: For a study demonstrating that people make better decisions about some kinds of things — but worse decisions about other kinds of things — when they have a strong urge to urinate.
PSYCHOLOGY PRIZE: For a study whose purpose was to try to understand why, in everyday life, people sigh.
LITERATURE PRIZE: For the Theory of Structured Procrastination: To be a high achiever, always work on something important, using it as a way to avoid doing something that’s even more important.
BIOLOGY PRIZE: For a study that investigated why a certain kind of beetle mates with a certain kind of Australian beer bottle.
PHYSICS PRIZE: For a paper that studied why discus throwers become dizzy, and why hammer throwers don’t.
MATHEMATICS PRIZE: To six pundits, all of whom predicted that the world would end on a number of different dates, for teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations.
PEACE PRIZE: To 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.
Photo credit: John Bradley