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Sept. 12 2012 2:10 PM

The Greatest Hits of Weird Science

What the Oscars could learn from the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony.

Miss Sweetie Poo confronts Charles Paxton at the 2002 Ig Nobel Prize ceremony at Harvard University.
Miss Sweetie Poo confronts Charles Paxton at the 2002 Ig Nobel Prize ceremony at Harvard University. Paxton and three colleagues were awarded that year's Ig Nobel Prize in biology for their study "Courtship Behavior of Ostriches Towards Humans Under Farming Conditions in Britain."

Photo by Eric Workman/Improbable Research.

I emcee the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. Occasionally, people ask, "Do you have a top hat and a lion whip to keep the circus in order?" to which my answers are: 1) Yes, I do have a top hat, which is decaying and at this point about 50 percent duct tape; and 2) No, because lion whips are not the most efficient of tools for the task. We have something better with which to tame humans. We call her Miss Sweetie Poo.

Miss Sweetie Poo is an exceptionally cute 8-year-old girl. She ensures that every acceptance speech will be at most 60 seconds long. At the start of the ceremony, I ask Miss Sweetie Poo to demonstrate what she will do whenever a speaker exceeds his or her allotted time. This wee little girl walks all the way across the stage, looks up at the person who's droning on, and says, "Please stop. I'm bored. Please stop. I'm bored. Please stop. I'm bored. Please stop. I'm bored ..." Miss Sweetie Poo does not stop until the speaker does.

Every year we give 10 Ig Nobel Prizes, honoring achievements that make people laugh, then make them think. The winners travel from around the world, at their own expense, to a gala ceremony at Harvard, where a bunch of genuine Nobel laureates physically present them the Ig Nobel Prize. The prize itself is made of cheap materials that are prone to disintegrate. The winners also get a piece of paper that says they have won an Ig Nobel Prize. The paper is signed by those Nobel laureates. It's a nice piece of paper to have.

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The winners are a varied lot, their accomplishments a testament to the improbability—the unexpectedness—of human thought and behavior. Kees Moeliker of the Netherlands, the scientific discoverer of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck. Daisuke Inoure of Japan, the inventor of karaoke. Andre Geim and Sir Michael Berry of England, who used magnets to levitate a frog. (Geim was later awarded a Nobel Prize for something different, involving a pencil and some sticky tape, which in its way is just as goofy-sounding. Then he was knighted.) The team of Australian scientists who published a study called "An Analysis of the Forces Required to Drag Sheep Across Various Surfaces." Elena Bodnar of Chicago, who invented a brassiere that, in an emergency, can be quickly converted into a pair of protective face masks, one for the brassiere-wearer and one to be given to some needy bystander. Arturas Zuokas, the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, for demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with an armored tank. Don Featherstone, the creator of the plastic pink flamingo. You can see a list of all the 200 or so past winners here.

We held the first ceremony in 1991. The 22nd First Annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony will occur next week, on Thursday evening, Sept. 20. We will as usual webcast it live. At parties around the world, folks will gather to see who the winners are and watch them try to ward off Miss Sweetie Poo. We compiled a "best of Miss Sweetie Poo" highlight reel here.

The Ig Nobel Prizes are just part of my work. I collect stories about improbable research. These are things that are real, though they may at first glance appear to be anything but. They are research in the broadest sense: Someone was trying to do or discover something new. (Or they couldn't or didn't avoid doing or discovering something new.)

It can be tempting to assume that “improbable” implies more than that—implies bad or good, worthless or valuable, trivial or important. Something improbable can be any of those, or none of them, or all of them, in different ways. Something can be bad in some respects and good in others. Improbable is, simply, what you don't expect.

My magazine, the Annals of Improbable Research, comes out six times a year, packed with reports of improbable people and things. For the past nine years, I have also been writing a weekly column, "Improbable Research," in the Guardian. I collected a fair heap of these reports for a book that has just been published, called This Is Improbable: Cheese String Theory, Magnetic Chickens, and Other WTF Research.

Here are two improbable chunks from the book. One is even about lions.

The Cheese Files

Because race is an uncomfortable topic for many people, certain questions simply are not discussed. It is now nearly 30 years since the publication of Beth A. Scanlon's blockbuster report “Race Differences in Selection of Cheese Color.” In all that time, the report has received nary a mention in public forums. 

I have found no reference to Scanlon's report in any political speech, anywhere. This is not surprising. No skilled politician likes to venture near a potentially divisive subject on which public sentiment is still unclear. 

Scholars, on the other hand, sometimes love to stake out an early position on a controversial issue. It's a simple way to make a name for oneself in the professional community. But the academic world, too, has been virtually silent on the question of race differences in selection of cheese color.

The Scanlon report itself is brief—just one page long. And it is blunt. “White and yellow American cheese was presented to 155 individuals from three ethnic groups,” Scanlon wrote. One group was black, one white, the other Hispanic. “In a supermarket, a display table was set with two plates of American cheese, one yellow, one white. As the individuals selected a piece of cheese, the grouping and the color of the chosen cheese was recorded.”

Scanlon also offered the cheese to an extra, so-called control group of people, each of whom was blindfolded. The blindfolded cheese-samplers, she wrote, ”reported no significant difference in flavor of the cheeses.” 

The overall results of the experiment? Scanlon concluded that “the preferences for one of two colors of American cheese are dissimilar for different races of respondents.” 

As far as I could determine, this is the only research report Beth A. Scanlon ever published.

The Pride of the Pride

Lion-roaring competitions used to be private, simple affairs, organized entirely by lions, without spectators. That changed in the early 1990s, when Karen McComb, Jon Grinnell, Craig Packer, and Anne Pusey realized they could use technology—loudspeakers, amplifiers, and sometimes a stuffed artificial lion—to stage-manage some lion-roaring contests, and to document those ginned-up events on video. The foursome wanted to know: When lions hear other lions roar, what do they do?

McComb was based at the University of Cambridge, Grinnell at the College of Wooster and the University of Minnesota, and Packer and Pusey at the University of Minnesota. The roaring contests, however, were held in Tanzania. 

The researchers set up loudspeakers in the jungle, booming out recordings they had made of one, two, or three lions roaring simultaneously. In a series of reports in the journal Animal Behaviour, they detail what happened.

Groups of males in their own territory listening to recorded, amplified roars, generally roared back, and often walked toward the loudspeaker. Nomadic males heard the same recordings, but, being uninvited guests, they always stayed silent and kept to themselves.

Marc Abrahams is editor and co-founder of the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research and its website, www.improbable.com, and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He seeks out research that makes people laugh, and then think.

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