Best of the Ig Nobel prizes 2009

Why don't pregnant women topple over? Do cows notice kindness? Does cracking your knuckles bring on arthritis? And is there more than one use for a bra? These questions and more inspired the research rewarded at the Ig Nobels, which were handed out on Thursday at Harvard University in a ceremony organised by the Annals of Improbable Research.

After a year of global financial turmoil, the theme was risk, expounded in a 1-minute keynote address by Benoit Mandelbrot, the mathematician who years ago showed that financial markets are fraught with wild fluctuations.

After a year filled with a flock of financial achievements any one of which might merit an Ig Nobel, the economics prize was bound to be controversial. The Ig Nobel committee picked the management and auditors of four Icelandic banks – Kaupthing Bank, Landsbanki, Glitnir Bank and the Central Bank of Iceland – for experimentally demonstrating that financial market fluctuations can rapidly transform very small banks into very large banks, then rapidly reverse the process, thereby demolishing the national economy.

The mathematics prize went to another financial wizard, Gideon Gono, governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, who imbued his compatriots with a sophisticated understanding of large numbers by printing the national currency in denominations ranging from 1 cent to 100 trillion dollars as the country's inflation rate soared to 231 million per cent.

Non-financial risk inspired Elena Bodnar of the University of Chicago medical school, who received the public health prize for a dual-use brassiere. Having lived in Ukraine at the time of the Chernobyl accident, she knew the importance of being prepared for unexpected public-health emergencies. Together with two Chicago colleagues, she designed and patented a brassiere with cups that can double as a pair of gas masks. In the event of nuclear accident, bioterrorist attack or smoky fire, the wearer can quickly detach the two cups, fasten one over her own mouth and nose for protection, and hand the other to a needy bystander.

The experimental quantification of risk earned the peace prize for Stephan Bollinger of the forensic medicine department at the University of Bern in Switzerland. With four colleagues, he attempted to find out whether a full beer bottle or an empty one is more likely to crack someone's skull. Using modelling clay, they mounted bottles horizontally in a bathtub, with small blocks of wood on the upward-facing side of each one.

It turns out that empties make a more dangerous weapon. Dropping 1-kilogram steel balls onto the blocks from various heights indicated that 30 joules of energy shattered full bottles, but empty bottles could withstand 40 joules (Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, vol 16, p 138). Both would suffice to break the weaker parts of a human skull.

In the same alcohol-related vein, the chemistry prize recognised Javier Morales, Miguel Apátiga and Victor Castaño of the National Autonomous University of Mexico for developing a peaceful, low-risk application for another alcoholic beverage: tequila. They found that tequila could be used to make diamond films – a super-tough semiconductor (

The physics prize recognises a delicate gravitational study to answer a question that only small children usually dare ask: why don't pregnant women tip over? For four-legged mammals and our knuckle-walking cousins, the maternal load is balanced between front and hind limbs, but for bipedal humans baby and belly protrude perilously.

How could primitive humans have survived when they spent most of their adult lives pregnant or nursing infants, wondered anthropologists Katherine Whitcome of the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, Daniel E. Lieberman of Harvard University and Liza J. Shapiro of the University of Texas, Austin. The answer, they discovered, was that women have a more pronounced curvature in their lower backs than men, shifting the upper part of the trunk backwards so their bodies balance better during pregnancy.

Donald Unger, an allergist in Thousand Oaks, California, earned the medicine prize for addressing another timeless question: does cracking knuckles really cause arthritis, as his mother warned him it would? As a child, he naturally thought his mother omniscient, but as a teenager he learned about science and started questioning received wisdom of this kind.


Post a Comment