Day 684: Ig-Nobly Speaking

originally published November 14, 2013

Every so often when perusing scientific news we come across a study that seems, to the layman observer, to be mildly superfluous. Do we need to know which phase of the menstrual cycle will bring in better tips for a lap dancer? Are horses so finicky with food that we need a study of their favorite flavors? Is it going to affect my day to know that attractive men tend to have longer ring fingers?

Those are all actual studies, and I have no doubt someone has already commissioned and researched a meta-study on how these dumb scientific studies affect the public’s perception of the scientific community. That’s why I’m glad we have the Ig Nobel Prize.

Handed out each October, these awards are to the science world what the Golden Raspberries are to the movie business, only the selections tend to be less awful and more amusing. The community has subsequently embraced the dubious honors, and actual Nobel Laureates hand out the prizes at a lavish ceremony conducted at the Sanders Theater at Harvard. Here are some of the ignoble Ig Nobel winners worth mentioning:

It seems destiny is steering me this week toward medical maladies that have until now drifted beyond the fringes of my radar. Yesterday I wrote about cello scrotum – though that was revealed to be a hoax. But the 1993 Ig Nobel Prize for Medicine is about something very real: “Acute Management Of The Zipper-Entrapped Penis.” Three men who aim to secure our schlongs from the wrath of the gnashing teeth of our hungry Levis’ gaping maws penned this article from their home base of the Naval Hospital in San Diego.

Unfortunately, tracking down the full text of this article without actually paying for it is proving to be trickier than I’d expected. This irks me even more as I see the three Keywords attached to the article abstract I located: “zipper”, “foreskin/penile skin”, and “bone cutter”. Sounds like the makings of some great literature.

I’m having similar difficulties locating the full breadth of another article that appears beside it in the Journal of Emergency Medicine: “Termination Of Intractable Hiccups With Digital Rectal Massage.” Yay science!

I’m proud to report that there was a local Ig Nobel win back in 1998. Jerald Bain of Mt. Sinai Hospital in Toronto and Kerry Siminoski of my alma mater, the University of Alberta, won the award for Statistics thanks to their article, “The Relationship Among Height, Penile Length And Foot Size.” Finally, these important questions are getting an answer.

Well, it’s bad news for those who have been making an effort to show off the size-16’s that their feet have been swimming in. It turns out that neither height nor shoe size are strong indicators of a mighty swinging hammer. While we’re at it, neither is the trebly roar of your muffler-less Honda Civic, nor are the silver metal testicles hanging from the back of your jacked-up Ford F-350.

The 2002 Ig Nobel Peace Prize went to Japanese researchers Keita Satoh, Matsumi Suzuki and Norio Kogure, who developed “Bow-Lingual”, which has ushered in a new era of peace and harmony between humans and dogs. Well, that’s the idea anyway. This device monitors the dog’s barking and transmits an emoticon to your handy LCD screen, letting you know if he’s happy, sad, on guard, and so on. How well it works… well, the vote’s not in on that one. There are three reviews: one praising it, one claiming his dog now relentlessly mocks him, and another who used the cat version and swore the cat was telling him to murder his friends.

This product holds no value for me. My dogs only bark when someone comes to the door or when one of us has the audacity to make a noise in another room that lets them think someone’s at the door. I don’t need electronics to provide any more information than I already have.

In 2004 the Ig Nobel folks recognized the Public Health contribution made by Jillian Clarke of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who used your tax dollars to investigate the validity of the five-second rule. Not surprisingly, she found that a piece of food that touches a floor tile infested with E. coli will be contaminated immediately. That said, most floors in public places are not infested with E. coli so you might be alright.

The Mythbusters tackled this one too, and found that the difference in terms of bacteria in dropped food is insignificant between two and six seconds. What matters is where you drop your food. Your own TV room floor is probably nothing to worry about, but that churro that you let slip in front of the Foot Locker at your neighborhood mall? Even if you scoop it up in a second and a half, you might want to plunk it in the trash. Or give it to some yutz who drives a jacked-up Ford F-350 with silver metal testicles hanging off the back.

The Ig Nobels were handed out last month, and this year’s crop is certainly nothing short of wacky. Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus (yes, he actually looks like that), won this year’s Ig Nobel Peace Prize along with the Belarus State Police. All Lukashenko had to do to earn this honor was make it illegal to applaud in public.

No, I’m not making this up. Lukashenko became so concerned over the pubic ire that arose as his nation’s economy tanked, he felt he had to take some action. Rather than creating a few hundred thousand jobs or looking for a way to restore the economic balance, he decided to go after what he felt was the root of the problem: people are pissed off. They’re protesting in the streets, clapping loudly at rallies – it only makes sense that if the people don’t clap, they probably won’t be angry. Right?

The State Police get the nod because they actually arrested a one-armed man for violating this law. A one-armed man who was holding a cell phone when the police nabbed him. Perhaps he had a clapping app or something.

When you think of all the freedoms we take for granted, even the most grateful soul in the western world will probably not consider the glorious right to move one’s appendages toward one another in a rapid and repetitive fashion.

I guess it’s the little things that matter.

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