Monday, 17 November 2014

The IgNobel awards

The ‘stinker’. Official mascot of the IgNobel awards

“For work that first makes people laugh and then think”

by Felix Kennedy

September 18th saw the 24th annual IgNobel awards ceremony take place. Now, almost as famous as the Nobel Prize awards they aim to mimic, prizes are given for research that ‘first makes you laugh, and then makes you think’. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honour the imaginative and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology.

Past notable winners have included University of Bristol professor, Sir Michael Berry, who won the prize along with Sir Andre Geim, for floating a frog in a strong magnetic field. This is possible as almost all material displays a very weak type of magnetism called diamagnetism. Even material that would never usually be regarded as magnetic, such as water, contains electrons. Under a strong enough magnetic influence, the electrons within a material align and develop a magnetic field of their own that opposes the magnetic field they are in. This causes the material to be repelled from the magnet and if the repulsion is strong enough, the material will simply float, in this case the frog. Although the feeling of weightlessness was probably rather disconcerting to the frog, I would like to point out that no animals were hurt in the undertaking of this experiment-the frog was completely fine afterwards!
A weightless frog, floating in a magnetic field

Historically, IgNobel prizes have been awarded for rather obscure work, but real world applications have been found for discoveries that may seem merely interesting at first glance. A good example is a study that won the IgNobel prize in Biology showing that malaria mosquitoes (Anophelese gambiae) are equally attracted by the smell of Limburger cheese and human feet. Since then traps have been baited with Limburger cheese across Africa to help combat the epidemic of malaria. Another such example was in the field of Chemistry when the 2011 Chemistry IgNobel prize went to researchers who determined the ideal density of airborne wasabi to wake people up. The research has now been incorporated into some alarm systems to help wake deaf people in the case of an emergency.

On the other hand, some winners have produced work where it hard to find an application in the real world. This rather extensive list includes the 2008 IgNobel prize in Biology that was award to researches for discovering that fleas on dogs jump higher than fleas on cats. In another case a prize was awarded researchers from Scotland’s Rural College for their work on bovine behaviour. They found that cows that have been lying down longer are more likely to stand up soon, however once a cow has stood up it is much harder to predict when it will lie down again. Other cow related IgNobel prizes include one given to Newcastle University researchers who found that cows with names produced more milk than those without names, and one given to researchers who developed a method to extract vanilla flavour from cow dung. In this instance vanillin was extracted in a more cost efficient method than taking it from vanilla pods. This means if you want cheaper vanilla extract for your cakes, then look no further a field of cows!

With other winning pieces, if you really try, you might just be able to find some useful information. For example, unless you have rather stubborn sheep and are looking for the easiest floor to pull them across, I can’t see why a paper written by Australian scientists entitled "An analysis of the forces required to drag sheep over various surfaces” would be of any interest to you. Despite this, the paper still won the IgNobel prize in Physics in 2003.

Some prizes are award in jest to people you may not think deserve recognition for their work. One that falls into this category is the 2005 IgNobel award for literature, given to the ‘internet entrepreneurs of Nigeria’. You may know these people as the ‘lost relative’ scam artists, where an email will pop into your inbox from some distance relative explaining that they are in line to inherit a large sum of money. The catch is they need a small amount of cash to pay some legal fees and, if you are able to pay the fees, then you would be rewarded handsomely once they receive their money. Unfortunately the story is a fable, but the less savvy amongst us have sent money abroad in a hope of receiving part of the fortune anyway. The organisers of the IgNobel awards found that this fraud showed ingenuity and imagination, awarding the prize for literature to these con artists. Another controversial winner was the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, who won the IgNobel peace prize rather ironically, in 2013. He received the Ig Nobel award for decreeing that it would now be illegal to applaud in a public area and he shared the award with the Belarus state police department for arresting a one armed man for clapping in public.
Sloping, slatted, wooden platforms are preferable for sheep dragging.
Sheep pulling over the preferred surface

The breadth of work that the prizes cover and the weirdness of some of the academic work complied here, I believe, is outstanding. I think it is also interesting how the IgNobel awards are also used to highlight questionable work, such as the distant relative scam and the odd laws that have been introduced in Belarus. If you have enjoyed this article I suggest you have a look at the rather extensive IgNobel award Wikipedia page. There are many more interesting winners that I have not been able to list here and I am certain many will ‘First making you laugh and then making you think’

All that is left to say is that I hope you are looking forward to the 2015 IgNobel prizes as eagerly as I am!