Smart Slime, Ovulating Strippers Among 2008 Ig Nobels

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
October 3, 2008
Some fake drugs are better than others, armadillos are assaulting our history, and slime mold is smarter than we think—these and other offbeat scientific triumphs were honored Thursday night at the 2008 Ig Nobel Prize ceremony.

The prizes celebrate "achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think."

More than 1,200 people attended a raucous affair at Harvard University, dubbed the "18th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony" in honor of this year's theme—redundancy.

William Lipscomb, who had won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1976, dispensed prizes to the ten honorees. He himself was the prize in the Win a Date With a Nobel Laureate contest.

The gala is thrown every year by the science/humor journal Annals of Improbable Research (AIR).

(Related: "Poop Vanilla, Endless Soup Among 2007 Ig Nobels" [October 5, 2007].)

Generics and Jerks

Duke University business professor Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, took home the Ig Nobel Prize for medicine.

In one study covered in the book, a group of people took placebos—fake pharmaceuticals—that they were told were expensive. Another group took the same pills but was told the drugs were inexpensive.

The "expensive" pills were found to be more effective pain relievers than the "cheap" ones.

The study could have implications for patients given generic, instead of brand-name, medications.

An eight-year-old girl, Miss Sweetie-Poo, chased Ariely from the podium when he delivered an acceptance speech longer than the allotted 60 seconds.

Organizers employed the child to loudly repeat "Please stop! I'm bored!" when winners exceeded the time limit.

David Sims of Cass Business School, London, won the Ig Nobel Prize for literature for a workplace study entitled "You Bastard: A Narrative Exploration of the Experience of Indignation Within Organizations."

Sims explained that consistent behavior, even bad behavior, isn't as maddening as that which leaves one struggling for an explanation. A predictable jerk, in other words, isn't as distressing as a loose cannon.

"Hero, fool, villain—what is this person going to be in [the story of my life]?" he asked. "The people you get really angry with are the ones who don't settle into a single character—you just can't work out what they're up to."

The findings had stuck a familiar chord with many readers.

"When I was taking this around as a seminar paper, everyone was convinced that I had gathered my data in their institution."

Snacks, Smart Mold, and Super Fleas

The Ig Nobel for nutrition was bestowed for an unusual taste test. Scientists had electronically enhanced the sound made when a person bites into a potato chip. Testers were fooled into thinking their snack was crisper and fresher than it actually was.

Japanese and Hungarian scientists captured the Ig Nobel in cognitive science for proving that slime mold can navigate a maze.

When placed in a maze with food sources on both ends, the organism had spread "like mayonnaise on a slice of bread," said Ryo Kobayashi of Hiroshima University in Japan.

But after about ten hours, the mold had abandoned the maze's dead ends and inhabited only the most direct route between the food sources.

Three French scientists took the Ig Nobel biology honors by demonstrating that fleas living on dogs can jump higher than those living on cats.

And though history may be written by the winners, archaeological history can be rewritten by the burrowing of armadillos. A Brazilian team won the archaeology Ig Nobel for demonstrating live armadillos can scramble the locations of artifacts in an archaeological dig site.

Reflections on Plants, Strippers, and Coca-Cola

Urs Thurnherr, of the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology, accepted the Ig Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the citizens of Switzerland—who have adopted the constitutional principle that plants have inherent dignity.

On stage, Thurnherr asked, "Have you ever been away or forgotten to water one of your house plants and then had to throw it away? Did that make you feel uneasy in any way?"

The prize in economics went to Geoffrey Miller, Joshua Tybur, and Brent Jordan of the University of New Mexico, who had discovered that lap dancers' tip earnings rise and fall with their ovulatory cycles—from an average of U.S. $70 per hour when about to ovulate to just $35 during menstruation.

Previous studies had shown that women in mid-cycle have faces and breasts that are more attractive to men, as well as a more appealing scent, Miller said.

Research also suggests that many women are happier at this time.

"Men are probably responding partly to physical appearance and smell, and quite a bit to behavior, happiness, and outgoingness—but we really don't know yet," Miller said.

The physics prize went to a team that had unveiled a new type of string theory. This version was a mathematical proof that piles of string or hair will inevitably tangle themselves up in knots.

*The chemistry prize was shared by two groups that had conclusively put an urban legend to rest—sort of.

Deborah Anderson, of Boston University School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School, was recognized for her 1980s discovery that Coca-Cola is an effective spermicide (though not a reliable form of birth control).

"I'd like to thank the Ig Nobels for recognizing our seminal study," she quipped.

However, Anderson shared the prize with a team of Taiwanese scientists who had proved just the opposite.

With the winners crowned and the stage swept clear of paper airplanes tossed by the audience, Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, closed the evening in traditional style.

"If you didn't win an Ig Nobel Prize tonight—and especially if you did—better luck next year."

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