Aussies well-represented for Ig Nobel awards in 2013

By Wes Judd 12 September 2013
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From documenting frog smells to patenting the wheel, Aussies have won plenty of Ig Nobel Prizes.

DID YOU KNOW that Australian scientists spent years smelling frogs, reporting that some smell like sweet Bombay curry when tickled with a Q-tip?

If not, you probably haven’t discovered the Ig Nobel Awards, designed to “honour the achievements that make people laugh, then think”.

This year’s Igs are due to be live-streamed online tomorrow morning at 8am from Harvard University in the USA – and there are a few Aussie scientists in the running.

The Igs are a humorous nod to the fact that every year thousands of researchers look into how our world works, sometimes oblivious to the seeming absurdity of their endeavours. The first awards ceremony was held in 1991 and they are now attended by thousands of scientists each year.

The Igs are the brainchild of Marc Abrahams who studied applied mathematics at Harvard. He founded the awards while working as the editor of the Journal of Irreproducible Results – a magazine dedicated to science humour – and was once described by The Washington Post as the “the nation’s guru of academic grunge”.

The “funny” night of science

“About 10-20 per cent of nominees have nominated themselves,” says Marc. However, he says, the majority don’t realise what they’ve done is funny until they win (there is the option to decline).

Aussies have been well-represented in past Igs, featuring 12 times in a little over two decades. 

Associate professor Dr Mike Tyler from Adelaide University was awarded an Ig Nobel in 2005. The author of more than 20 books on Australian frogs accepted the award after leading a team of trained researchers who painstakingly smelled and catalogued the odours of 131 different frog species when they were feeling stressed.

“It was one of the few genuine scientific achievements in that year’s ceremony,” says Mike, who discovered chemicals released by the frogs might act as bird deterrents and mosquito repellents.

In 2002 a group of Aussies from the University of Ballarat and the University of South Australia published a study titled, An Analysis of the Forces Required to Drag Sheep over Various Surfaces. “They, like most of our winners, simply responded to a problem and only later took a step back and saw how it funny it really was,” says Marc.

Still celebrating serious pursuits

Initially, many were worried the Igs would take a tone of mockery. “They were afraid the scientists’ reputations would be trashed,” Marc told Australian Geographic. But the science community has largely embraced the awards. The ceremony was free its first year, but that quickly changed when nearly a thousand curious scientists, scholars, and journalists arrived.

They have grown in size and reputation ever since, attracting Nobel Laureates who often handout awards and enjoy the process of lightly mocking their own fields. Harvard’s Sanders Theatre, where the Igs are held, has a seating capacity at 1,166 and has been sold out for weeks.

Plenty of candid lampooning is done in good humour during the ceremony. Last year the Literature Prize went to The US Government General Accountability Office for issuing a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports. The award was accepted with good grace.

The Igs are not without academic rigour; Improbable Research the sister magazine of the Igs has an editorial board of more than 50 scientists including nine Nobel Laureates and IQ record holder Marilyn Vos Savant.

The two-hour Ig Nobel Prize ceremony will be streamed live from the Australian Geographic website from 8am AEST, Friday the 13th of September. To view click here.

Australians who have won Ig Nobel Prizes

MEDICINE PRIZE: Mirjam Tuk (Netherlands, UK), Debra Trampe (Netherlands) and Luk Warlop (Belgium) and jointly to Matthew Lewis, Peter Snyder and Robert Feldman (USA), Robert Pietrzak, David Darby, and Paul Maruff (Australia) for demonstrating that people make better decisions about some kinds of things, but worse decisions about other kinds of things when they have a strong urge to urinate.

BIOLOGY PRIZE: Darryl Gwynne (Canada, Australia, UK, USA) and David Rentz (Australia, USA) for discovering that a certain kind of beetle mates with a certain kind of Australian beer bottle.

LITERATURE PRIZE: Glenda Browne of Blaxland, Blue Mountains, Australia, for her study of the word “the” — and of the many ways it causes problems for anyone who tries to put things into alphabetical order.

MATHEMATICS: Nic Svenson and Piers Barnes of the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organisation, for calculating the number of photographs you must take to (almost) ensure that nobody in a group photo will have their eyes closed

PHYSICS: To the late John Mainstone and the late Thomas Parnell of the University of Queensland, Australia, for patiently conducting an experiment that began in the year 1927 — in which a glob of congealed black tar has been slowly, slowly dripping through a funnel, at a rate of approximately one drop every nine years.

BIOLOGY: Benjamin Smith of the University of Adelaide, Australia and the University of Toronto, Canada and the Firmenich perfume company, Geneva, Switzerland, and ChemComm Enterprises, Archamps, France; Craig Williams of James Cook University and the University of South Australia; Michael Tyler of the University of Adelaide; Brian Williams of the University of Adelaide; and Yoji Hayasaka of the Australian Wine Research Institute; for painstakingly smelling and cataloguing the peculiar odours produced by 131 different species of frogs when the frogs were feeling stressed.

PHYSICS: Jack Harvey, John Culvenor, Warren Payne, Steve Cowley, Michael Lawrance, David Stuart, and Robyn Williams (AUS), for their irresistible report “An Analysis of the Forces Required to Drag Sheep over Various Surfaces.”

INTERDISCIPLINARY RESEARCH: Karl Kruszelnicki of The University of Sydney, for performing a comprehensive survey of human belly button lint — who gets it, when, what color, and how much.

ECONOMICS: The executives, corporate directors, and auditors of Enron, Lernaut & Hauspie (Belgium), Adelphia, Bank of Commerce and Credit International (Pakistan), Cendant, CMS Energy, Duke Energy, Dynegy, Gazprom (Russia), Global Crossing, HIH Insurance (AUS), Informix, Kmart, Maxwell Communications (UK), McKessonHBOC, Merrill Lynch, Merck, Peregrine Systems, Qwest Communications, Reliant Resources, Rent-Way, Rite Aid, Sunbeam, Tyco, Waste Management, WorldCom, Xerox, and Arthur Andersen, for adapting the mathematical concept of imaginary numbers for use in the business world.

TECHNOLOGY: Awarded jointly to John Keogh of Hawthorn, Victoria, Australia, for patenting the wheel in the year 2001, and to the Australian Patent Office for granting him Innovation Patent #2001100012.

LITERATURE: Awarded to Jasmuheen (formerly known as Ellen Greve) of Australia, first lady of Breatharianism, for her book Living on Light, which explains that although some people do eat food, they don’t ever really need to.

PHYSICS: Awarded to Len Fisher (UK, Australia) for calculating the optimal way to dunk a biscuit, and Jean-Marc Vanden-Broeck of the (UK, Belgium) and Joseph Keller (USA) for calculating how to make a teapot spout that does not drip.

LITERATURE: Awarded to Eric Topol, R. Califf, F. Van de Werf, P. W. Armstrong (Australia), and their 972 co-authors, for publishing a medical research paper which has one hundred times as many authors as pages.