Celebrating the bizarre

Why do teenagers pick their noses? Why does toast usually fall buttered side down? Frivolous questions perhaps, but to Marc Abrahams, this is serious work.

Delving deep, researchers picked out astonishing finds
Delving deep, researchers picked out astonishing finds

Abrahams is the founder of the Ig Nobel Prize. Like the Nobel Prize, which laud the world’s brightest minds for writing top-notch literature or making the world a better place through scientific achievements, the Ig Nobels are awarded once a year.

But the similarities stop here.

Since 1991 Abrahams has been handing out Ig Nobel-prizes awarded to people whose achievements “cannot or should not be reproduced”.

Among the first winners was former US Vice President Dan Quayle, who took the education award for, “demonstrating, better than anyone, the need for science education”.

Among the gaffes that won Quayle his Ig were: “It isn’t pollution that’s harming the environment. It’s the impurities in our air and water that are doing it” and, “Space is almost infinite. As a matter of fact, we think it is infinite.”

Now, after more than a decade of honouring triumphs of persistence over probability, Abrahams has compiled a new book, The Ig Nobel Prize: The Annals of Improbable Research.

The book offers insight into some of the most bizarre research ever presented with a straight face.

Classic research

One research recalled is a paper penned by three Scottish doctors entitled The Collapse of Toilets in Glasgow. After three patients, within six months, showed up in their emergency room with injuries sustained while sitting on lavatories, the intrepid doctors decided to investigate.

“An obvious way of using a toilet without fear of collapse is…not to sit down, but to adopt a hovering stance,” advised the groundbreaking 1993 paper.

For Abrahams, the key thing to becoming an Ig Nobel winner is to have produced something where, “the only reaction that is at all reasonable is that it makes you laugh and you think about it afterwards”.

Dan Quayle was corrected by 12-year-old on spelling of potato

Dan Quayle was corrected by 12-
year-old on spelling of potato

Abrahams sifts through 5000 ideas nominated by scientists and members of the public for the 10 Igs awarded yearly.

But Abrahams does not spend his days mulling over issues like how best to dunk a cookie in a cup of coffee. When he started studying applied mathematics at Harvard University, his ambitions were to set up a software company.

When the company failed to set the world alight, he began editing The Journal of Irreproducible Results before starting up his own magazine and devoting his life’s work to the decidedly peculiar.

Nose picking fun

Among the items highlighted in Abrahams’ new book is an academic treatise conducted by Indian scientists, working at a government institute, on adolescent nose picking.

The 2001 report found that nose picking is the same across social classes. About 80% of teenagers do it exclusively with their fingers, while the rest are split almost evenly between using tweezers and pencils.

Delving deeper, the doctors found about 50% of people pick to unclog their noses, 11% do it for cosmetic reasons, while a similar number does it just for fun.

Finally, the equally groundbreaking 1995 study Tumbling Toast, Murphy’s Law and the Fundamental Constants concluded: “Toast falling off the breakfast table lands butter-side down because the universe is made that way.” 

Source : Reuters

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