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Ig Nobel prize for physics falls flat on its face

The 2008 Ig Nobel award

By Michael Banks

Maybe physicists are not doing enough research that “first makes people laugh, then think”.

Last night was the annual bash at Harvard University for the Ig Nobel awards, which are given by the humour magazine The Annals of Improbable Research and celebrates research that “cannot, or should not, be repeated”.

Each year the awards have an overall theme. Last year it was redundancy, and in 2007 it was, bizarrely, chickens which involved keynote speaker Doug Zonker repeating the word “chicken” for two minutes.

This year’s theme was risk and mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot gave a keynote address. But fitting in with the eccentricity of the event, every winner of an award had only 60 seconds to give a speech before an eight-year-old girl went up to that stage saying she was ‘bored’.

This year’s ‘physics’ prize went to three anthropologists: Katherine Whitcome from the University of Cincinnati, Daniel Lieberman from Harvard University and Liza Shapiro from the University of Texas won the award for determining why pregnant women do not tip over.

The work, published in Nature, found a difference in the spines of women and men, which allowed a pregnant woman to lean backward and counterbalance the weight of the developing fetus.

I didn’t find the work particularly hilarious and probably represents rather bona fide research.

The chemistry prize lived up more to the suggestion of making you laugh then think. This year’s prize went to Javier Morales, Miguel Apátiga, and Victor M. Castaño at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, for creating diamond films from tequila.

Other 2009 winners include Gideon Gono, governor of Zimbabwe’s Reserve Bank, who won the prize for mathematics for “giving people a simple, everyday way to cope with a wide range of numbers”. Gono ordered bank notes in Zimbabwe to be printed with denominations ranging from one cent to one hundred trillion dollars.

Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson from Newcastle University’s school of agriculture were awarded the veterinary medicine prize for discovering that giving cows names increases their milk yield compared to unnamed cows.

The last few years have seen rather dubious awards given for physics. Last year was for understanding why knots form spontaneously in lengths of “agitated” string, while in 2007 the prize was won for the “physics of wrinkling” — providing insight into why drapes hang a certain way.

It was much better when the prize for physics was given for such things as levitating frogs, calculating that beer froth decays exponentially and finding the best way to dunk a biscuit in a cup of tea.

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  1. Bee

    Is there experimental evidence that pregnant men do tip over?

  2. Aetius

    I think this “prize” should not continue, the first ones were indeed funny but as the time goes on they mock on good scientific studies.
    They end up confusing originality and stupidity

  3. David

    From hearing Mark Abrahams speak, the goal was never to mock stupidity, but rather to educate the public about science in a sneaky way. Thus, work that makes you “first laugh, and then think.” They have moved away from the older motto, “work that cannot, or should not, be repeated,” which sounds more mocking. I wonder if they have run into the tension between humor and educational value in recent years and moved a bit in favor of the latter.

  4. Neil

    You’re being a bit unfair. The categories aren’t set (i.e. they invent a field of endeavour to reward as and when needed), so perhaps studies of counterbalancing pregnancy should have been classed as something other than physics. However, it is amusing and thought-provoking, which is in no way inconsistent with the idea that it’s bona fide.
    The Zimbabwean banknotes are bona fide, but not research. How do you cope with that? Three years ago or so, there was a Literature Prize for the creative writing of the Nigerian fraudsters. That was neither bona fide nor research. Did you favour those two because they were funny?
    I am a subscriber to the Annals of Improbable Research. You call it a humour magazine. I think it would be far more accurate to describe it as a science magazine with an inordinate number of in-jokes.

  5. I like your blog, ill be back soon for ant updates.

  6. I love the Ig Nobel prizes more than the “regular” ones! They seem to hit the nail on the head when it comes to weird physics.


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