A universe of science at the Ig Nobels
Everything from exploding colons to dead fish with brain activity
If you’ve ever wondered about exploding colons or the brain activity of dead salmon, you might be interested in the work done by this year’s Ig Nobel Laureates The 22nd Ig Nobel Awards, prizes awarded annually for improbable research that “first make people laugh, and then make them think” were awarded yesterday in Sanders Theater at Harvard University. The theme for the 22nd Ig Nobels was “The Universe.” Previous themes have spanned topics ranging from “Duct Tape” to “Biodiversity.”
A collection of Nobel laureates was on hand at the ceremony to present awards to the winners of the Ig Nobel Prize. Presenters included Dudley Herschbach, the 1986 Nobel laureate in chemistry; Rich Roberts, the winner of the 1993 prize for physiology or medicine; Eric Maskin, the 2007 winner in Economics; and Roy Glauber, who was awarded the Nobel prize for physics in 2005. Several previous winners of Ig Nobel Prizes were also part of the ceremony.
The ceremony was preceded by several concerts, featuring the Boston Squeezebox Ensemble, a “chemi-accordian” ensemble and “KEROMIN”, a frog-shaped electronic instrument. Robert Kirshner, a professor in the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, delivered the keynote address during which he addressed the topic of the universe using demonstrations like inhaling from a helium balloon, and cutting a pumpkin pie.
The first award was given to Emmanuel Ben Soussan, a gastroenterologist from Paris, France, who received the Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work showing that if lasers are used for coagulation during a colonoscopy and the patient’s bladder is not perfectly clean, the colon will explode.
Soussan said this became apparent after fairly large explosions occurred during the procedures of two separate patients. Soussan did not realize the problem was with laser coagulation after the first operation, but after the explosion repeated itself, he realized that the explosions were caused by the release of methane and hydrogen gases as the laser burned stool residue. Both patients recovered from the incidents, and Soussan said that his discovery has highlighted the need for proper surgery preparation for colonoscopies.
Rousal Krechetrikov won the Ig Nobel Prize for Fluid Dynamics for his work on why people spill coffee. He said he was inspired watching his colleagues attempt to return to their seats with coffee while at a conference. Krechetrikov found that the natural frequencies of the oscillations of coffee are on the same order as the frequency of a step.
The Ig Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to two projects. The first project was led by Ray Goldstein, a professor of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University; Robin Ball, a Professor of physics at the University of Warwick; and Patrick Warren, an employee at the company Unilever. They were awarded the prize for solving the mathematical problem of the physics of the ponytail, drawing upon principles from condensed matter physics and fluid mechanics. Goldstein said that by using variables such as elasticity and linear mass density, they were able to model the ponytail by a differential equation, the solutions of which provided insight into what was going on inside the hair. The group said that their model for bundles is somewhat analogous to the Navier-Stokes model for fluids.
The other award-winning physics project was led by Joseph Keller, a professor emeritus of mathematics and mechanical engineering at Stanford University, with his work on the motion of ponytails. Keller said he was inspired by noticing that the ponytails of joggers on campus swung back and forth despite the fact that their heads were bobbing up and down. He found that if the frequency of the ponytail was around half of the frequency of the jogger’s steps, the side to side motion would occur.
A group of four scientists shared the Ig Nobel Prize for Neuroscience. Abigail Baird, a professor of Psychology at Vassar College; Craig Bennett, a postdoctoral research at the University of California – Santa Barbara (UCSB); Michael Miller, professor of Psychology at UCSB; and George Wolford, a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth University, received the award for imaging work they accomplished while working collaboratively at Dartmouth. While working on a research project about adolescent emotional processing, Bennett said they inadvertently noticed brain activity in the fMRI of a dead salmon. Bennett said that he and Baird were involved in a “one-upsmanship” competition to use more and more obscure objects as a reference for the machine. They did not actually look at the images until years later when Baird wanted to use the results — which she expected to show no signals — to show the strengths of fMRI processing. Instead, the pictures showed they found brain activity as a result of a lack of strong corrections. After running the proper corrections, the activity disappeared.
Other winners included Frans de Waal, a biologist at Emory University and Jennifer Pokorny a researcher at Emory, who won the Ig Nobel in Anatomy for his work showing that chimps can match the behinds of other familiar chimps to their faces. The two were trying to determine whether chimpanzees can interpret gender from appearance. Rouslan Krechetnikov and Hans Mayer received the award in Fluid Dynamics for their work analyzing why coffee spills using theories of periodic and statistical citations.
Anita Eerland, Rolf A. Zwaan, and Tulio M. Guadalupe received the Ig Nobel in Psychology for their work showing that the Eiffel Tower looks smaller if you lean to the left. Earland and Zwaan — the only winners not in attendance — could not come to the ceremony because of their upcoming wedding later this weekend.
While some of the projects recognized in the ceremony may seem initially frivolous, they often have broader applications to the scientific field. For instance, Krechetnikov said that he hoped his work with coffee would help him develop models for actuated boundary layer flow systems. Bennett and his colleagues said that their research highlighted the importance of corrections in imaging in their field and will help increase the accuracy of data.
The winners said that they were generally pleased to be recognized for their work. Keller said, “It’s great fun. It’s nice that people recognize this type of work.” He added that their project had broader applications and that he hoped it would help stimulate interest in the sciences.
Wolford said that the Ig Nobel award was a “capstone experience” and he joked that it was a “good thing to retire on.” Soussan said that he enjoyed the event because it was both serious and funny.
Another highlight of the ceremony was a series of 24/7 Lectures, in which distinguished speakers were allowed 24 seconds to provide the audience with a clear description of their field and then present a seven-word summary. Scientist Erika Ebbel Angle summarized mass spectrometry as “It weights the bits in your gunk” and Nobel Laureate Rich Roberts used his seven words on arsenic-based life to say that “Only assholes believe arsenic can support life.”
The ceremony also included an opera about the universe, two grand airplane deluges, a “win a date with a Nobel Laureate” bit, and several Moments of Science.
The winners recognized at the ceremony will talk about their work and answer questions during the Ig Informal Lectures on Saturday, Sept. 22 at 1:00 PM in 10-250. The event is free and open to the public.