Gary Rotstein's Morning File: Bravo, Ig Nobelists, for making our brains bristle
September 21, 2015 12:00 AM
Charles Krupa/Associated Press
David Hu (the one with the toilet seat on his head) accepts the Ig Nobel Physics Prize for research on the principle that all mammals empty their bladders of urine in about 21 seconds.
By Gary Rotstein / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
September is always The Morning File’s favorite month of the year because of the return of Steelers football, the renewed chance to wait behind school buses twice a day with their stop signs out and, of course, the annual awarding in Cambridge, Mass., of the Ig Nobel Prizes.
The prizes have been given out for the past 25 years by the Annals of Improbable Research, a science humor magazine, as a spoof of the soon-to-be-awarded, meritorious — but hard for most normal people to comprehend — Nobel Prizes. Not so the Ig Nobels, which cite actual research that is easy to grasp because of the simplicity of how ridiculous it is.
If you didn’t quite understand that last sentence, you might say “Huh?” to it, and that’s just what the winners of the Ig Nobel for Literature would expect, no matter where you’re from. Three researchers discovered that “Huh?” — or a simple equivalent that also means “I didn’t quite get that” — exists in every human language.
Of course, since they’re academics, they can’t describe their finding in quite such straightforward fashion. They had to put it in a published paper titled, “Is ‘Huh?’ a universal word? Conversational infrastructure and the convergent evolution of linguistic items.” Huh? What’s that last sentence supposed to mean? It’s too painful to try to figure out, so let’s move on to other awards.
It was a great year for painful research, actually, with two Ig Nobels given out related to that field.
The Physiology and Entomology Prize went to two individuals examining the pain people feel when stung by insects. Cornell University’s Michael L. Smith was especially recognized for applying agitated honeybees to 25 different parts of his body to figure out which places were most sensitive to pain.
It turns out if you’re stung on the skull, the upper arm or the tip of your middle toe, it’s tolerable. As for the nostril, upper lip or, um, penis, those places really, really hurt.
“Getting stung on the nose is a whole-body experience,” Mr. Smith explained at the ceremony. “You’re sneezing and wheezing and snot is just dribbling out. It’s electric and pulsating.”
We fear that last description will sound appealing to some crazed reader who will immediately go stick his nose in a beehive just to experience it for himself. We take no responsibility here for that.
Nor will we accept blame if someone with appendicitis goes out and drives over a speed bump to see what that feels like. A group of researchers received the Diagnostic Medicine Prize for studying that exact phenomenon. They sought to find out whether acute appendicitis can be accurately diagnosed by the amount of pain evident when the patient is driven over speed bumps.
The research took place at a hospital in the United Kingdom, where speed bumps are common nearby. It might be a little sadistic to take someone on a joy ride over the bumps if they’ve shown up reporting appendicitis-like symptoms, so patients who had already shown up at the hospital were simply asked questions about whether they felt increased pain when going over any bumps. If they did, it turns out there was increased likelihood they were suffering an appendicitis attack rather than some other problem.
Moulay Ismael the Bloodthirsty of Morocco caused plenty of pain to others during his reign from 1697 to 1727, but a University of Vienna team was interested in another of his intriguing aspects. He was said to have fathered at least 888 children from his many wives and concubines, although there have been questions about just how feasible that would have been. After determining by a computer program that daily sex for 32 years would have indeed made such prodigious progeny possible, the Vienna team was awarded the Ig Nobel for Mathematics.
Sometimes, the Ig Nobel judges are proactive after reading newspaper stories and hand out an award even when no research has been conducted. That was the case with a plan in Thailand last year by the Bangkok Metropolitan Police to award bonuses to officers who had refused to accept bribes.
It was just the kind of government reward program to public employees that might make you go “Huh?” And for that, the Bangkok Metropolitan Police were recognized with the Ig Nobel Prize for Economics, though no officials showed up to accept.
Gary Rotstein: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1255.
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