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News » Opinion

Laugh, Then Think

The Ig Nobel award



In 2009, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Barack Obama for "his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." Two weeks later, the Ig Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Stephen Bolliger, Steffen Ross, Lars Oesterhelweg, Michael Thali and Beat Kneubeuhl of the University of Bern, Switzerland, for determining—by experiment—it is better to be smashed over the head with an empty beer bottle than a full one.

Obama's prestigious prize was awarded by the Nobel committees of Sweden and Norway. The Ig Nobel awards, now 25 years old, are sourced in the Harvard University campus. The annual award ceremony, held earlier in the fall, evokes the irreverent theatrics of such other Harvard satirists as the Lampoon and Hasty Pudding Club. That the Ig Nobels are presented by Nobel Laureates like Obama redeems the event from low comedy.

"The Ig Nobel awards are arguably the highlight of the scientific calendar. The prizes, which are the wayward son of the more righteous Nobels, are supposed to reward research that makes people laugh, then think," wrote Helen Pilcher in Nature.

As much as I enjoy smart parody, I look forward to the sober-sided Nobels from Scandinavia each fall. The Peace Prize and the Literature Prize are the two that interest me. The others are usually too arcane to appreciate. Svetlana Alexievich won the prize in literature this year. She is a Ukrainian whose "novels of voices" were cited as a "monument to suffering and courage in our time."

The 2015 Ig Nobel literary prize went to three scholars from the Planck Institute of Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands "for discovering that the word 'huh?' (or its equivalent) seems to exist in every human language—and for not being quite sure why."

I detected literary aspiration in the citation of the 2015 Ig Nobel Mathematics Prize. Two scientists from the University of Vienna published The Case of Moulay Ismael—Fact or Fancy. The title brings Sherlock Holmes to mind. In this instance, however, science prevailed. The award recognized the "use of mathematical techniques to determine whether and how Moulay Ismael the Bloodthirsty, the Sharifian Emperor of Morocco, managed to father 888 children between 1697 and 1727."

Laugh, think, then fetch a calculator.

How long does it take to drain a bladder of urine? Answering that weighty question garnered scientists at Georgia Tech the Ig Nobel Physics Prize "for testing the biological principle that nearly all mammals empty their bladders in about 21 seconds (plus or minus 13 seconds).

Angus Deaton, an economist at Princeton University, was named this year's Nobel Laureate in Economics for "his analysis of consumption, poverty and welfare." I tried to understand his achievements in macroeconomics, but the prose was too dense. Much easier to understand was the Ig Nobel Economics Prize. It was awarded to the Bangkok Metropolitan Police "for offering to pay policemen extra cash if they refused bribes."

The Ig Nobel in Medicine was shared by researchers from Japan and Slovakia "for experiments to study the biomedical benefits or biomedical consequences of intense kissing (and other intimate, interpersonal activities.)" Chilean scientists won an Ig Nobel "for observing that when you attach a weighted stick to the rear end of a chicken, the chicken then walks in a manner similar to that in which dinosaurs are thought to have walked."

The discovery that many business leaders "developed in childhood a fondness for risk-taking after experiencing natural disasters (e.g. earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis) that—for them—had no dire, personal consequences" earned Gennaro Bernile, Vineet Bhagwat and Raghavendra Rau the Ig Nobel Management Prize.

Pain is the common denominator in two of this year's Ig Nobels. The Medicine Prize recognized groundbreaking work in "determining that acute appendicitis can be accurately diagnosed by the amount of pain evident when the patient is driven over speed bumps." But that scientific breakthrough pales in comparison to the Schmidt Sting Pain Index developed by Justin Schmidt, a research entomologist, and Michael Smith, a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell. Schmidt's index, which received the Physiology and Entomology prize, rates the relative pain from the stings of various insects. "Smith arranged for honeybees to sting him repeatedly on 25 different locations on his body to learn which were the least painful (skull, middle-toe tip and upper arm) and which were the most painful (nostril, upper lip and penis shaft.)"

Laugh, then think. It was Smith's penis, not Schmidt's, that was stung. I am thinking of Dr. Honeydew's long-suffering assistant, Beaker, on The Muppet Show. Can't you hear Beaker whimpering as Honeydew orders him to unzip his fly for the sake of science?

Finally, the Ig Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to a group of Australian and American scientists who figured out how to return a cooked egg to its previous liquid state. Unboiling an egg reminds me of the Golden Fleece Awards handed out by Sen. William Proxmire in the 1980s. They generated the same "smile, then think" reaction, but the intent was to spotlight government officials who were fleecing the public by funding inconsequential research. One award went to the Federal Aviation Administration for a $60,000 study of the size of stewardesses' butts. As it turns out, however, altering an egg's protein structure—uncooking it, so to speak—has far-reaching implications for synthesizing anesthetics like Lidocaine and other drugs.

I conclude the Ig Nobels are certainly funny but not as ignoble as they seem to be. CW

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