Tag Archives: improbable research

Saturday “Nobel” Smörgåsbord


So, now that all Nobel Prizes have been awarded, I thought this week’s Smörgåsbord could be about this year’s winners! After all, they are Swedish, and I am in Sweden…
and then I though maybe I didn’t really have the right background to be presenting all these Big Important People and their (honestly pretty astounding) research/accomplishments to you. But… I could give you a selection of my favorite Ig Nobel Prizes!

The what?!?

The Ig Nobel Prizes for Improbable Research, which honor achievements that make people laugh first, and then think.

Among the winners this year were Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse and her team, which perfected a method for collecting whale snot, Lianne Parkin and co-workers for showing that wearing socks over your shoes reduces the risk of slipping on ice, and Richard Stephens and colleagues, who won the Ig Nobel Price for Peace for confirming that swearing indeed helps relieve pain. Here is some more remarkable research that first makes you laugh, then think.

For those of us who have often tried to explain something by making analogies, the phrase: “You’re comparing apples and oranges!” is undoubtedly familiar, and is generally perceived as being a telling blow to the analogy since it is generally understood that apples and oranges cannot be compared. After being the recipient of just such an accusation, Scott A. Sandford from the NASA (!) Ames Research Center, Mountain View, California decided to see if this statement actually made sense.
“(…) the statement that something is like comparing apples and oranges is a kind of analogy itself. That is, denigrating an analogy by accusing it of comparing apples and oranges is, in and of itself, comparing apples and oranges.” He then proceeded to prove that apples and oranges can indeed be compared and, more importantly, are remarkably similar.
Interestingly, in Belgium we generally say: “You’re comparing apples and pears.”. I wonder if that makes more sense… .

The Peter Principle was first formulated by Laurence Peter, and published in 1969. The Principle states that men and women in hierarchies climb the professional ladder until they reach the level of maximum incompetence. While this may seem completely irrational, scientists have shown, using computer models, that if you assume that 1) the best members are rewarded with promotion and 2) the competence at the new level in the hierarchical structure does not depend on the competence at the previous level (since both levels often require different competences), the Peter Principle not only holds, but is

unavoidable and leads to an average decrease in efficiency of 10% – promoting the worst employees on the other hand increased efficiency by 12%. A more elaborate explanation can be found here.
I think it just comes down to this: if people are good at their jobs… let them do them! If people are not good at their jobs, well, maybe they’d better do something else. People who are doing a good job deserve a reward, but promotion may not be the best one.

In 1999, Dr. Len Fisher of Bath, England and Sydney, Australia, and professor Jean-Marc Vanden-Broeck of the University of East Anglia, England, and Belgium (oh, allow me some chauvinism while my country still exists!) shared the Ig Nobel Prize for Physics for calculating the optimal way to dunk a biscuit, and calculating how to make a teapot spout that does not drip, respectively. The latter research was actually supported by the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Air Force, and the National Science Foundation, since the mathematics that explains the flow of tea also apply to the resistance of waves to a ship’s hull. Which is… fascinating.
One year later, the Physics prize went to Andre Geim of the University of Nijmegen, the Netherlands, for using magnets to levitate a frog. Interestingly, this is the very same Andre Geim who won the (“real”) Nobel Prize for Physics this year for his completely unrelated (and by far less exciting) research on the two-dimensional molecule graphene.


Image by kaibara87 via Flickr

However, the life of a scientist can be hard. Ryan Shaun Baker found himself breaking up with his girlfriend after conducting exhaustive research on the factors influencing the amount of sleep he was getting. Based on whether or not he had attended social activities, read in bed, felt ill, … and whether he slept alone or not, he was forced to conclude that his girlfriend, in effect, proved to be sleep retardant. While I feel he did not have sufficient proof supporting his conclusions, I must say I appreciate a man who values a good night’s sleep.


And I haven’t even talked about the bra which can be converted to a protective face mask or that high-prized fake medicine is more effective than low-prized fake medicine, and all the questions that have been answered: is Kansas as flat as a pancake? (no, in fact, it is flatter), do cats always land on their feet? (only when they fall from at least 2 feet), how do you get girls interested in science? (with a good-looking (male) teacher) and why doesn’t a woodpecker get a headache?

Should you have your own little research going on which you think will benefit the world, you can send it in for publication in the Annals of Improbable Research, and/or nominate your or other’s research for the Ig Nobel Prizes next year. In each case, head over to their website if the above stories even mildly amused you… they got a lot more going on on there!