for National Geographic News
A bra that can save your life during a terrorist attack, diamonds made from tequila, and trash reduction via panda poop were among the more unusual scientific achievements lauded last night at the 2009 Ig Nobel Prize ceremony.
Crowds packed Harvard University's venerable Sanders Theater for the 19th annual event, which this year carried the theme "risk."
The raucous celebration, hosted by the Annals of Improbable Research and several Harvard student groups, seeks to honor real science "that first makes people laugh, and then makes them think."
Nine genuine Nobel laureates took part in the festivities by distributing prizes to the winners. In addition, Martin Chalfie, winner of the 2008 chemistry Nobel, served as the prize in the "Win a Date With a Nobel Laureate" contest.
Elena Bodnar and colleagues won the Ig Nobel in public health for designing a fashionable bra that, in a matter of seconds, can be converted into a pair of emergency HEPA-filter gas masks.
"It only takes 25 seconds for any woman to use," she joked. "Five seconds to convert and wear her own mask, and 20 seconds to wonder who the lucky man is to wear the second mask."
During an onstage demonstration, those lucky men were Nobel laureates Paul Krugman, winner of the 2008 economics prize, and Wolfgang Ketterle, recipient of the 2001 prize in physics.
Despite the levity, the invention stemmed from a very serious situation—Bodnar's experiences as a young Ukrainian medical student helping victims of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
"I realized that just having a simple mask could reduce major contributions to internal radiation, like iodine-131," which caused significant damage to people who breathed in radioactive dust, Bodnar said. The brassiere, she added, could prove to be an important, always-available defense against all manner of disasters or terrorist attacks.
Researchers from Newcastle University in the U.K. claimed the 2009 Ig Nobel in veterinary medicine by showing that cows with names give more milk than their nameless peers.
Animal-production scientist Peter Rowlinson said naming is really about building a relationship between humans and animals.
"When [farmers] give cows attention and a little tender loving care, they respond," he explained. "They are less fearful and give two extra pints of milk per day—that's statistically and economically significant."
The 2009 Ig Nobel Peace Prize went to Stephan Bolliger and colleagues from the University of Bern, Switzerland, who investigated the true damage potential of beer bottles, full or empty.
Bollinger, a forensics expert, had been asked repeatedly in court about just how much damage a beer bottle could cause in a bar brawl. His research showed that Hollywood trivializes what can be a serious weapon—both empty and full bottles can crack a human skull.
"It turns out that an empty bottle is actually more capable of inflicting serious damage," he said. Note: No human heads were harmed during the study.
Meanwhile, Miguel Apátiga and colleagues put alcohol to good use by creating diamonds from tequila, scoring themselves the 2009 Ig Nobel in chemistry.
"Tequila had the right composition of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen to produce diamonds," explained Apátiga, of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
The process is inexpensive, and cheap tequila works just fine. But don't expect an 80-proof ring anytime soon: The technique produces microscopic diamond films for industrial applications such as optical instruments and electronics.
Bank Inflation, Knuckle Cracking
To net the 2009 economics Ig Nobel, executives of four Icelandic banks showed that small banks can quickly be made into international powerhouses—and vice versa. The group was also credited with demonstrating that the same can be done with a nation's economy.
Claiming a prize six decades in the making, Donald L. Unger of Thousand Oaks, California, picked up the Ig Nobel in medicine for his attempt to learn if cracking your knuckles can cause arthritis.
Unger cracked the knuckles of his right hand every day for 60 years but never cracked those of his left hand. He still does not have joint inflammation in either hand.
Balancing Pregnant Women
Ever wonder how a very pregnant woman keeps her balance? Katherine Whitcome and colleagues answered that ancient question, earning themselves the 2009 Ig Nobel in physics.
A woman is able to redistribute her weight and maintain balance thanks to three lumbar vertebrae that have evolved to have a wedged shape. Males have only two such wedged vertebrae—just one of many reasons why they are poorly equipped to bear young.
"We dedicate this prize to all those pregnant bipeds who, for seven million years, have been carrying [their young] without tipping over," said Whitcome, a University of Cincinnati anthropologist.
Money Math and Panda Poop
The Irish police force won the Ig Nobel in literature for writing more than 50 traffic tickets to one Prawo Jazdy—not realizing the supposed offender's name is Polish for "driving license."
Gideon Gono, governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, was honored with the 2009 mathematics Ig Nobel for adopting creative currency. Zimbabweans must be among the world's best at quick computations, award sponsors figure, given that their nation's bank notes range in denominations from one cent to a hundred trillion dollars.
And last but not least, a team led by Fumiaki Taguchi, a microbiologist at Kitasato University's graduate school of medicine in Japan, took home the 2009 Ig Nobel in biology for discovering a novel way to reduce kitchen waste: giant panda poop.
Taguchi explained that the adorable animals have unusual feces full of trash-devouring bacteria. Luckily, the excrement mostly consists of almost undigested bamboo, so it lacks a typical waste smell.
"That was good for the experiment," he said.
After this year's winners were duly honored and the crowd completely out of paper airplanes to launch at the stage, it fell to master of ceremonies Marc Abrahams to close the evening in traditional style.
"If you didn't win an Ig Nobel Prize tonight—and especially if you did," he said, "better luck next year."
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