Issue Date: October 6, 2008
This has been a big year for top echelon competitions—the Summer Olympics, the U.S. presidential election, "Dancing with the Stars." And although there's no shame in striving for accolades, it's important to remember that winning isn't everything. No one knows that better than the winners of this year's IG NOBEL PRIZES, which are given annually for "achievements that first make people laugh and then make them think." Or is that drink?
The Ig Nobels were awarded on Oct. 2 in front of a paper-airplane-wielding audience at Harvard University's Sanders Theatre. As always, the awards were physically handed to the Ig Nobelists by genuine Nobel Laureates. The evening's most coveted trophies weren't quite of the glass, metal, and marble variety. Instead, 89-year-old Chemistry Nobel Laureate William Lipscomb was the prize in the Win-a-Date-with-a-Nobel-Laureate contest, and 84-year-old mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot was the prize in the Win-a-Date-with-Benoit-Mandelbrot contest.
This year's CHEMISTRY PRIZE was shared by two teams for controversial and contradictory work on carbonated contraceptives. In 1985, a team of researchers at Harvard reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that, in terms of sperm motility, "Coca-Cola products do appear to have a spermicidal effect" (N. Engl. J. Med. 1985, 313, 1351). Two years later, however, a Taiwanese team found the opposite to be true (Hum. Toxicol. 1987, 6, 395).
Reproduction research also garnered this year's ECONOMICS PRIZE. With a grant that must have been doled out in $1.00 bills, University of New Mexico psychology professor Geoffrey Miller and coworkers found that professional lap dancers earn better tips when they are ovulating (Evol. Hum. Behav. 2007, 28, 375). "Normally cycling participants earned about $335 per five-hour shift during estrus, $260 per shift during the luteal phase, and $185 per shift during menstruation," the researchers report.
Massimiliano Zampini of Italy's University of Trento and Charles Spence of Oxford University took home the NUTRITION PRIZE "for electronically modifying the sound of a potato chip to make the person chewing the chip believe it to be crisper and fresher than it really is" (J. Sensory Stud. 2004, 19, 347).
Inspired, perhaps, by the Olympic high-jumping competition, the Ig Nobel Committee awarded this year's BIOLOGY PRIZE to Marie-Christine Cadiergues and colleagues at France's National Veterinary College of Toulouse "for discovering that the fleas that live on a dog can jump higher than the fleas that live on a cat." According to a 2000 report, dog fleas outjump cat fleas by about 2 cm (Vet. Parasitol. 2000, 92, 239).
Every scientist knows that there's always some unanticipated variable that's capable of fouling up a research project. Astolfo G. Mello Araujo and José Carlos Marcelino of Brazil's University of São Paulo garnered this year's ARCHAEOLOGY PRIZE for their experiments "measuring how the course of history, or at least the contents of an archaeological dig site, can be scrambled by the actions of a live armadillo" (Geoarchaeology 2003, 18, 433).
Marc Abrahams, the Ig Nobel's master of ceremonies and editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, ended the evening, as he always does, by telling the audience, "If you didn't win an Ig Nobel prize tonight—and especially if you did—better luck next year."
A recording of the event can be viewed at improbable.com, and an edited recording of the ceremony will be broadcast on Friday, Nov. 28, as part of National Public Radio's "Science Friday."
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