You are the owner of this article.
Bromley column: Ig Nobel Prize hoists weird science up for all too see

Bromley column: Ig Nobel Prize hoists weird science up for all too see

David Guess cartoon 10-4-2017

I always knew I should’ve paid closer attention in my science classes. If I’d applied myself, I could’ve spent my career determining whether cats can be both a solid and a liquid.

Science experiments seemed boring back in school, what with all the equations and data and careful control of chemicals that might blow up the lab. But after learning about this year’s winners of the Ig Nobel Prizes, I have to say science can be a blast.

For 27 years, the delightfully warped brainiacs behind the Annals of Improbable Research have handed out awards that spoof the Nobel Prizes. They honor achievements that make people laugh, then think. Could playing a didgeridoo help you overcome sleep apnea? Let’s round up some horns and some test subjects and find out!

As the prize committee proudly states, worthwhile experiments also can be odd and even funny. “A lot of good science gets attacked because of its absurdity,” the group’s website reads. “A lot of bad science gets revered despite its absurdity.”

Take, for example, this year’s winners of the Ig Nobel Prize for economics, who studied how holding crocodiles affects gamblers. Can you imagine if we’d done exciting experiments like this in high school? It certainly would’ve beat cutting worms open.

Australian researchers had problem gamblers and non-problem gamblers handle 3-foot crocodiles before playing a simulated slot machine. The study found problem gamblers were likely to place higher bets after handling the reptiles, as their brains had misinterpreted the excitement of holding a dangerous animal as a sign they were on a lucky streak. If you see any gamblers walking the casino floor holding crocodiles, chances are they have a problem. Actually, they probably have several.

Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, said the awards highlight research that encourages people to think in unusual ways. “We hope that this will get people back into the habits they probably had when they were kids of paying attention to odd things and holding out for a moment and deciding whether they are good or bad only after they have a chance to think,” Abrahams told Reuters.

That might explain the mind of French researcher Marc-Antoine Fardin, whose study “Can a Cat Be Both a Solid and a Liquid?” was inspired by internet photos of cats tucked into glasses, buckets and sinks. He won the Ig Nobel in physics by using mathematical formulas to conclude that active young cats and kittens hold their physical shape longer than older, lazier felines. Science is a wonderful world. Prove an obvious conclusion — that exercise helps animals avoid obesity — and they hand you a prize.

A more surprising conclusion was reached by the authors of the paper “Didgeridoo Playing as Alternative Treatment for Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome: Randomized Controlled Trial.” A multi-national team of six researchers won a prize for determining the Australian wind instrument helps apnea sufferers not because its droning tone puts them to sleep, but because daily practice involves a lot of blowing, strengthening players’ upper respiratory tracts. This is the kind of stuff you can’t know until you try and didgeridoo it.

“They are unusual approaches to things,” Abrahams said. “It would be difficult for some people to decide whether they are important or the opposite. If you had sleep apnea for a long time, the didgeridoo thing would sound quite intriguing.”

I’m intrigued, and I have neither a didgeridoo nor sleep apnea. This is the beauty of the research that yields Ig Nobel Prizes: It recognizes people whose approach is a little off center. Sort of like my attempt to bisect that worm back in ninth grade.

Submit your ideas for wacky scientific experiments to bbromley

Catch the latest in Opinion

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

  • Updated

We're in this together. (Just don't stand so close.) We're unified in our goal. (But look, 6 feet away, OK?) If you haven't been outside lately, let me paint a picture: People are outside but not many people are outside, and wherever people are going right now - to grocery stores, jogging trails, gas stations - an elaborate dance is happening, a social distancing pas de deux, being learned on ...

Joe, a semiretired 81-year-old, never expected his Italy guys' trip to thrust him into the front ranks of COVID-19 patients. Joe's story goes against the grain of news about the coronavirus now gripping the world and providing epidemiologists and public health experts with the challenge of their professional lives. Joe is a patient of a medical colleague, and he and his wife gave me permission ...

People around the world are bemoaning having to stay mostly at home for some weeks because of COVID-19. After just a day or two - even with the internet, Netflix, books, music, games, FaceTime and endless other ways to entertain themselves and stay connected, not to mention walks in the park and trips to the grocery store - many people reported feeling lonely, bored, restless, or even ...

You don't notice Joe Biden's stutter when he's speaking most of the time. He didn't stutter during the debate on March 15, for example. But as a stutterer, I recognized the signs of a master stutterer at work. Seeing Biden on stage takes me back to my childhood. I've watched him for years and recognize the familiar tricks. Noticed him struggling with a phrase or name he's uttered a million ...

Most people I know hate Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. For me, that chaotic place at the end of the Kennedy Expressway has always been a source of deep comfort. If anything were to go wrong with my independent, 96-year-old mum in Great Britain, I've told myself since moving to Chicago 30 years ago, I can be at her side tomorrow morning. In fact, being as American Airlines has long ...

The $2 trillion stimulus package passed by the Senate Wednesday night provides enormous loans to airlines and other businesses as well as rebates of $1,200 to most low- and middle-income U.S. adults. But the legislation bars an important group from receiving rebates: elderly and disabled adults who are financially dependent on family members. The result is that the largest aid package in U.S. ...

  • Updated

I have a confession to make, something that in the age of COVID-19 seems almost seditious: daily, up-close human contact is an indispensable part of my life. I use a motorized wheelchair and I need assistance doing the routine things everyone does every day, like getting dressed and getting out of bed and doing laundry and all that. I've hired a crew of people to come in and help me do that ...

As the First Partner of California and as the Chief Service Officer of California, our first priority is to lift up California's families and most vulnerable communities. We believe wholeheartedly in elevating the value of service and creating a sense of community where the health and well-being of all of us is as important, if not more important, than our individual success. Embracing ...

"Never let a serious crisis go to waste," Rahm Emanuel advised in the midst of the 2008 financial meltdown. It's advice that China appears to have taken to heart. For as the world grapples with how to control a pandemic that has now spread to 175 nations, infected hundreds of thousands and killed more than 20,000 people, China is asserting itself as the global savior that will lead the world ...

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alert

Breaking News