6 Nutty and Intriguing Discoveries
Introducing the Ig Nobel Laureates
When we consider the great scientists, we think of such Nobel laureates as Curie, Einstein, Whitcome … What? You’ve never heard of Katherine K. Whitcome? You mean you missed the paper by the University of Cincinnati assistant professor and her colleagues explaining why pregnant women don’t tip over? She, too, is a laureate—an Ig Nobel laureate. These tongue-in-cheek annual awards are bestowed upon those who dabble in some very strange science.
Here are some of last year’s winners.
Stephan Bolliger, Steffen Ross, Lars Oesterhelweg, Michael Thali, and Beat Kneubuehl of the University of Bern, Switzerland, for determining which hurts more—being smashed over the head with a full bottle of beer or with an empty bottle.
An inherent problem in an experiment of this nature is finding volunteers who will agree to be brained with a beer bottle in the name of science. The scientists overcame this obstacle by dropping steel balls onto full and empty beer bottles. They found that the empties were sturdier than their full brethren because the gas pressure from the liquid produces additional strain on the glass. Needless to say, full or not, beer bottles can cause a whole lot of hurt, which is why the scientists advocate prohibiting them “in situations that involve risk of human conflicts.” Of course, if we outlaw beer bottles, only outlaws will drink beer from bottles.
Public Health Prize
Elena N. Bodnar, Raphael C. Lee, and Sandra Marijan of Chicago, for inventing a brassiere that, in an emergency, can be converted into a pair of protective face masks, one for the wearer and one to be given to a lucky bystander.
It appears that in the face of chemical or biological warfare, a woman’s primary job is to doff her clothes. The face-mask bra isn’t some tactic of the porn industry. Instead, it’s intended for anyone who may come in contact with dangerous fumes. Masks, say the inventors, may not be available, but there’s almost always a bra handy. The cups are made of air filters and can be disconnected, then shared. The woman can easily strap it over her nose and mouth “to help purify the inhaled air,” reads the report, “while keeping her hands free,” presumably to fend off unwanted suitors.
Donald L. Unger of Thousand Oaks, California, for investigating a possible cause of arthritis of the fingers, by cracking the knuckles of his left hand—but never the knuckles of his right hand—twice a day for 60 years.
After being warned by his mother to swear off that demon knuckle cracking, young Donald Unger tested the accuracy of this hypothesis on himself. More than 219,000 cracked knuckles later, the verdict is in: Crack away. Unger could detect no difference between the two hands, and he found no evidence of arthritis. From why you shouldn’t run with scissors to why you should wait an hour after eating before you swim, Unger’s seminal research has thrown everything our mothers told us into question.
Veterinary Medicine Prize
Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson of Newcastle University, United Kingdom, for showing that cows that have names give more milk than cows that are nameless.
Admit it, when was the last time you paid a compliment to a heifer? Or told one, “You’re a thousand roast beef sandwiches wrapped in a gorgeous leather jacket”? It turns out our attitudes make a difference. Being friendly and remembering a cow’s name can increase milk yield by 258 liters a year. This came as no surprise to farmers, one of whom told the researchers that cows “hurt and love like anyone else.”
Javier Morales, Miguel Apátiga, and Victor M. Castaño of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, for creating diamonds from tequila.
As if there weren’t already enough reasons to love tequila! It seems we can spill a little on the bar and make diamonds. Of course, you have to heat it up to 536 degrees Fahrenheit and do a bunch of other stuff to it before you can place it on your main squeeze’s finger. But the first round is on us!
Fumiaki Taguchi, Song Guofu, and Zhang Guanglei of Kitasato University Graduate School of Medical Sciences in Japan, for demonstrating that kitchen refuse can be reduced by more than 90 percent by using an enzyme-producing bacteria extracted from the feces of giant pandas.
While this has potential applications—reducing garbage and waste— it still raises the question, How did it dawn on someone to try this experiment? And, of course, if one of your aims in ridding yourself of garbage is to get rid of the stench, adding poop to it is not likely to help.