03 October 2008

British triumph at the Ig Nobels

It is with great pleasure to report that two Britons have joined the august list of Ig Nobel Prize winners.

David Sims of the Cass Business School in London, whose paper You Bastard: A narrative exploration of the experience of indignation within organisations, won the literature prize, said: "I'm delighted. The whole ethos of the Ig Nobels is a wonderful way to make people think." The paper examines how people construct roles as clever bastards, devious bastards or bastard ex machina, and goes on to examine the mixture of joy and guilt of labelling someone as such.

Sims wrote the paper after puzzling how right-thinking people who often stressed the importance of appreciating others' arguments would give up and brand someone a bastard. "We are all novelists writing the next chapter of our life story and with bastards, we need to understand what kind of character they are trying to create," Sims said.

Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, was awarded the Ig for nutrition for his investigation into the gastronomical role of sound. In the study, volunteers ate crisps of varying freshness while wearing headphones. As they ate, the sound of the crisp breaking was modified by a computer and played back to see if it changed their perception of the crisp's freshness. By making the crunch sounds louder, or by boosting the high frequencies, Spence made people rate the crisps 15% fresher.

The work led to collaboration with Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, Berkshire, who played diners the sound of crashing waves to improve the flavour of oysters, and sizzling bacon to enhance his egg and bacon ice cream. "I'm very happy to be receiving the award," said Spence, who is now testing why crisps come in such noisy packets.

The Igs have become an irreverent highlight of the academic calendar, an annual exercise to celebrate research that makes people laugh first and think later. They are timed to coincide with the rather more lucrative and legitimate Nobels, which are awarded in Stockholm next week. The ceremony is hosted by the tongue-in-cheek journal, Annals of Improbable Research, and is attended by real Nobel prize-winners and a 1,000-strong audience. This year's recipients were given 60 seconds to deliver their acceptance speech, a time limit enforced by an eight-year-old girl.

The Ig Nobel prize for medicine was awarded to Dan Ariely at Duke University in North Carolina for a landmark study proving that costly placebos are more effective than cheap ones. Ariely's team told volunteers they were being given a new kind of painkiller, with some receiving an expensive one and others a much cheaper version.

Even though all of them received the same sugar pills, those who thought their pills were more expensive reported less pain when they were given small electric shocks. Arierly said his work has serious implications for the medical industry, because many patients are told they can only have cheaper drugs, or have inexpensive-looking medication, which could undermine how effective the drugs are. While the active ingredients of the drug will help treat symptoms, often they work in tandem with the placebo effect, which triggers the body's own healing mechanisms.

Among other winners were the people of Switzerland who claimed the Ig Peace prize for adopting the legal principle that plants have dignity; Geoffrey Miller at the University of New Mexico who won the economics prize for showing lap dancers received more in tips when they were ovulating; and scientists in San Diego who showed that hair, string and almost anything else will become tangled given the chance, earning them the Ig award for physics. Spare a thought also for the Chemistry prize winners: to Sharee Umpierre at the University of Puerto Rico discovered that Coke is a spermicide, while Chuang-Ye Hong at Taipei Medical University showed that it is not. Meanwhile Astolfo Mello Araujo at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil wone the Archaeology prize for measuring how the contents of an archaeological dig can be disrupted by the actions of an armadillo.

Not all of the winners understood why their work had made people laugh. Marie-Christine Cadiergues, who won the prize for biology by proving the fleas on dogs jump higher than those on cats, said: "Despite appearing funny and maybe crazy and useless to some people, this was part of a larger work on the biology of fleas ... A better knowledge of flea biology can provide a better control and therefore help vets, pet owners and overall our favourite pets."

Toshiyuki Nakagaki at Hokkaido University in Japan was similarly nonplussed about receiving the Ig award for cognitive neuroscience, after showing that slime mould could navigate a simple maze. "I was wondering which aspect of our research attracted the Ig Nobel prize. How does the prize evaluate our research? We are always serious and don't know why they laugh once before thinking," Nakagaki said.


Nunyaa said...

I shall view my coke and ice very differently from now on :)

Crushed said...

Well, I'm surprised about the slime moulds and the maze.

I'm thinking that some of the bizarre questions that pop in my mind aren't so bizarre after all.

Though actually I have a friend who has been puzzled for years over just why you can't outstare babies.

Maybe he should be put forward?

jams o donnell said...

Oerhaps the ice will work better Nunyaa!

when it comes to bizarre questions it's a case of you and me both Crushed! the baby staring idea is excellent. You could be up for an Ig Nobel if you can take it forward

Unknown said...

How the hell did she discover that Coke is a spermicide? (No, please don't! Too much info!)

The expensive placebo guy has handed NICE a brilliant way of enabling yet more people to die. 'We're giving you a very costly course of pills. So shuddup, you old trout, and get those α-D-glucopyranosyl- (1↔2)-β-D-fructofuranoside* tabs down yer gullet now!'

*Messrs Tate and Lyle have been pushing this stuff for donkey's...

jams o donnell said...

Hmm that's a horrible though deb acle

Unknown said...

Sadly, Jams, it's what NICE and the NHS do now. I've lost count of the times GPs have suggested I go to a homeopath or 'take herbs' over the years. Besides which we now have the great CBT scam looming.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy = 6 weeks of telling you to think more positively, if you're lucky it involves another human being, if not you are given a web-link to a computer programme that tells you - oh so NICEly - to think positive.

But CBT is far cheaper than any proper, patient-respecting treatment. It works for a few. Probably not for many.

jams o donnell said...

I must admit I've never had a serious problem with teh NHS. My keratoconus was dealt with poromplty and I get free contact lenses. My dermatologist is excellent. Not everyone has had my good fortune I know