Truly improbable research

Ig Nobel Frog

A frog being levitated as part of Ig Nobel Prize winning research that demonstrates the molecular magnetism inherent in all things. Courtesy of Wikimedia.


SAN JOSE, California – Did you know that when dogs defecate and urinate they align themselves with the north-south axis of the earth’s magnetic field?

Or that people who habitually stay up late are, on average, more self-admiring, more manipulative, and more psychopathic than people who habitually arise early in the morning?

Or that human beings can see faces in pieces of toast when in fact in there are none?

This, and other mind-boggling research, was presented in a packed hall at the Almaden ballroom of the Hilton San Jose on Feb. 14 as part of the Annals of Improbable Research session at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference. Being winners of the 2014 Ig Nobel Prize was what united them all.

The host was Marc Abrahams, editor-in-chief of the magazine Annals of Improbable Research, which awards the annual Ig Nobel Prizes.

The quality that the Ig Nobel prizes look for in new research is something that “makes you laugh, then think,” Abrahams said. While the Ig Nobel prizes may be seen as some as merely a spoof of the Nobel Prizes, most of the research showcased has significant implications for its field.

For example, researchers who won the Ig Nobel Prize for Physics in 2012 devised a “Ponytail Shape Equation,” which could be used to predict the shape of any ponytail, an unsolved problem since the time of Leonardo da Vinci. This calculation required the Rapunzel Number, a ratio used to calculate the effects of gravity on hair relative to its length, and a measure of the curliness of hair.

The Rapunzel number, according to Wikipedia, determines “whether a ponytail looks like a fan or whether it arcs over and becomes nearly vertical at the bottom.”

The research may have implications for uses including textile manufacturing, computer animation, and graphics design.

The recent event took a further turn for the unusual with a screening of the mini-opera “What’s eating you?,” a comedic exploration of a couple who stop eating food (“Everybody who has ever eaten regular food has died”) and “nourish themselves exclusively with pills.”

In the opera, with music “stolen from Mozart” and words by Marc Abrahams, the baritone and soprano surged in tune with the “microbe choir” composed of at least 4 Nobel Prize winners. In one scene,  the couple run out of pills, and seem more than a bit interested in each other as a potential food source.

“Oh my skinny, we are done for.

No more pills, and no refills.

How my insides, miss those polyglycerides!

I miss them…..

Give me your hand, my sweetie-sweet

What’s eating you, my treat?”

and onwards the libretto goes on to both darker and more comic suggestions.

At the end of the evening, the self-proclaimed “ world’s first and only stand-up economist,” Yoram Bauman, PhD, dissected, with razor sharp wit, Greg Mankiw’s 10 Principles of Economics: conventional wisdom that provides an overview of several of the “central ideas” of mainstream economics. He called this “Principles of Economics, Translated.

Bauman gives a twist to each of these principles. For example, Mankiw’s fifth principle, “Trade can make everyone better off,” becomes “Trade can make everyone worse off.”

Here’s Bauman’s “proof”:

Claim #1: Trade can make everyone better off.

Claim #2: Trade will make everyone better off.

Now, Claim #2 is clearly better, so why is #1 used?

Claim #2 must be false!

Trade can make some people worse off!

Therefore, trade can make everyone worse off!

The 25th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 17. Tickets will be on sale exclusively from the Harvard Box Office, in early July, according to the organizers.


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