Every year, Harvard University turns its hat backward, drops its pants and plays it cool by hosting the very tongue-in-cheek IgNobel awards. The prize celebrates “Improbable” research, that is, work that “makes people laugh and then think.” It’s a friendly counterpart to the Nobel Prizes, which are announced soon after the IgNobels.
Past winners of the coveted award include Australia’s Dr. Karl, for finding out what’s inside belly button lint, and a Lithuanian mayor, Arturas Zuokas, ‘for demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars could be solved by running them over with an armoured tank’.
2012 IgNobel Winners
Coffee Sloshing Science
Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara won the “fluid dynamics” prize for delving into the very important science of why coffee in a mug spills when you walk with it. Hans C. Mayer and Rouslan Krechetnikov used cameras to track subjects carrying coffee, and placed a tiny sensor inside their mugs to detect spills. The team found that the natural frequency of coffee swilling often matches a person’s walking leg movements. This uncanny harmony amplifies the coffee’s “slosh” ultimately culminating in a spill.
This isn’t hifalutin, useless, nonsense. Through their hard work the team discovered that coffee spills usually happened between the seventh or tenth step. So, keep that little ditty in mind next time you move from the kitchen to your desk.
Leaning Tower of Eiffel
And for working out that leaning to the left makes the Eiffel Tower seem smaller, a team at Erasmus University Rotterdam won the psychology prize.
The psychologists placed some undergraduates on a Wii Balance Board, and asked them to guess the size of a range of objects, including the Eiffel Tower. Unbeknownst to the students, the Wii Board was tilted very slightly to the left or right. The Guardian reports “participants who were leaning slightly to the left estimated the Eiffel Tower to be 12 meters shorter, on average, than those leaning slightly to the right”.
According to the Guardian, it’s believed that when we estimate the height of a building, say the Eiffel Tower, we remember the size of another buildings and compare it. Generally, people mentally represent numbers along a line with smaller numbers on the left and larger numbers on the right. As we retrieve memories about the height of a building and leaning to the left may make smaller numbers easier to access than larger ones.
The finding has wider implications. We often think that our mind is controlling our body, but this curious research highlights that the body – for example how cold we are and indeed our posture – can also influence our mind.
Did you know that chimpanzees can identify each other by seeing photos of their butts? Frans de Waal from Atlanta’s Emory University knew more about this than most when he accepted his IgNobel anatomy prize.
National Geographic wrote about the study back in 2008:
“Each participating chimp was flashed a picture of another’s bum, with visible genitals, then shown the face of the derriere’s owner and another face of the same gender. Both males and females were successful in this anatomical match game, pairing faces and posteriors with much greater frequency than chance alone—but only if the photos showed chimps they already knew.”
Since the chimps spotted their mates better than randoms, de Waal was able to infer “that their matching is based on their experience with the individual, not some kind of guesswork that they may do.” There is no evidence that human can do this, but that is no doubt an IgNobel prize waiting to happen.
Bla Bla Bla
Japanese researchers won the acoustics prize for their creation of ‘SpeechJammer‘, a device which stops people from talking by playing back the speakers own utterances at a delay of a few hundred milliseconds. “This effect can disturb people without any physical discomfort, and disappears immediately by stop speaking,” wrote the researchers in their academic paper. If you’re unclear about how it works, this “Overview” from the paper probably won’t help:
The US Government General Accountability Office received the literature prize for issuing a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports. Confused? The report, entitled ‘Actions Needed to Evaluate the Impact of Efforts to Estimate Costs of Reports and Studies’ describes itself as “estimating and publishing approximate costs for selected types of internally and externally required reports.” Hmm.
Finally, a UK research team won the physics prize for calculating the balance of forces that shape and move hair in a human ponytail. “From Leonardo to the Brothers Grimm our fascination with hair has endured in art and science. Yet, we still do not have an answer to perhaps the simplest question that captures the competing effects of filament elasticity, gravity, and mutual interactions: what is the shape of a ponytail?” wrote the authors in their paper. Thank goodness we do now.
According to ABC Science Online, Marc Abrahams, master of ceremonies and editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, ended the ceremony with the traditional, “If you didn’t win an Ig Nobel prize tonight, and especially if you did, better luck next year.”