03 October 2008

The Ig Nobels: Coke, strippers and the inevitable tangled mess of strings

Is Coke an effective spermicide? How does fertility of exotic dancers affect their earnings? And the intriguing 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."

The Ig Nobel is a spoof on the more serious Nobel Prize. Science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research organises the event (which has been going on for 18 years) in the hope that it will "make people laugh, and then make them think."

I particularly like that during the event, they had an eight-year-old girl tasked with stopping boring speeches. Excellent!

Strippers, armadillos inspire Ig Nobel winners
Mark Pratt, Associated Press Yahoo News 3 Oct 08;
Deborah Anderson had heard the urban legends about the contraceptive effectiveness of Coca-Cola products for years. So she and her colleagues decided to put the soft drink to the test. In the lab, that is.

For discovering that, yes indeed, Coke was a spermicide, Anderson and her team are among this year's winners of the Ig Nobel prize, the annual award given by the Annals of Improbable Research magazine to oddball but often surprisingly practical scientific achievements.

The ceremony at Harvard University, in which actual Nobel laureates bestow the awards, also honored a British psychologist who found foods that sound better taste better; a group of researchers who discovered exotic dancers make more money when they are at peak fertility; and a pair of Brazilian archaeologists who determined armadillos can change the course of history.

Anderson, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Boston University's School of Medicine, and her colleagues found that not only was Coca-Cola a spermicide, but that Diet Coke for some reason worked best. Their study appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1985.

"We're thrilled to win an Ig Nobel, because the study was somewhat of a parody in the first place," Anderson said, adding she does not recommend using Coke for birth control purposes.

A group of Taiwanese doctors were honored for a similar study that found Coca-Cola and other soft drinks were not effective contraceptives. Anderson said the studies used different methodology.

A Coca-Cola spokeswoman refused comment on the Ig Nobel awards.

Duke University behavioral economist Dan Ariely won an Ig Nobel for his study that found more expensive fake medicines work better than cheaper fake medicines.

"When you expect something to happen, your brain makes it happen," Ariely said.

Ariely spent three years in a hospital after suffering third-degree burns over 70 percent of his body. He noticed some burn patients who woke in the night in extreme pain often went right back to sleep after being given a shot. A nurse confided to him the injections were often just saline solution.

He says his work has implications for the way drugs are marketed. People often think generic medicine is inferior. But gussy it up a bit, change the name, make it appear more expensive, and maybe it will work better, he said.

Charles Spence's award-winning work also has to do with the way the mind functions. Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University in England, found that potato chips — "crisps" to the British — that sound crunchier taste better.

His findings have already been put to work at the world-famous Fat Duck Restaurant in England, where diners who purchase one seafood dish also get an iPod that plays ocean sounds as they eat.

Geoffrey Miller's work could affect the earning potential of exotic dancers everywhere.

Miller, an associate professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico, and his colleagues knew of prior studies that found women are more attractive to men when at peak fertility. So they took the work one step further — by studying earnings of exotic dancers.

In the 18 subjects Miller studied, average earnings were $250 for a five-hour shift. That jumped to $350 to $400 per five-hour shift when the women were their most fertile, he said.

"I have heard, anecdotally, that some lap dancers have scheduled shifts based on this research," he said.

Armadillos helped win an Ig Nobel for Astolfo Gomes de Mello Araujo, a professor of archaeology at the Universidade De Sao Paulo in Brazil, and a colleague earned.

Pesky armadillos, they found, can move artifacts in archaeological dig sites up, down and even laterally by several meters as they dig. Armadillos are burrowing mammals and prolific diggers. Their abodes can range from emergency burrows 20 inches deep, to more permanent homes reaching 20 feet deep, with networks of tunnels and multiple entrances, according to the Humane Society of the United States' Web site.

Araujo was thrilled to win. "There is no Nobel Prize for archaeology, so an Ig Nobel is a good thing," he said in an e-mail.

Dog fleas, string star in wacky science prizes
Yahoo News 3 Oct 08;
Scientists who unlocked the inner secrets of dog fleas, crisps and tangled string swept the tongue-in-cheek annual Ig Nobel Prizes on Thursday.

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 humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research, honors 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 honor.

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 wacky science event, then the televised debate between vice presidential candidates Joseph Biden and Sarah Palin.

More on the the Improbable Research blog Research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.

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