What is an Ig Nobel Prize?


Announcer

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Josh Clark

Hey and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark. With me as always, is Charles W. Chuck Bryant.

Chuck Bryant

You sound like you are smiling big and you are.

Josh Clark

This is Stuff You Should Know, of course I'm smiling.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, why not? We're in our happy chairs.

Josh Clark

Chuck, what is it: August, mid/late August; August right?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, mid-August.

Josh Clark

So you know what that means don't you?

Chuck Bryant

That means it's hot as Hades in Atlanta.

Josh Clark

It is. It's gross, man.

Chuck Bryant

Awful.

Josh Clark

It keeps raining just long enough to soak the ground and then boom, the sun comes out and [noise] it's muggy.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, awful.

Josh Clark

Yeah, I've actually spoken to people who have lived in New Orleans and they say that it is as bad as New Orleans these days?

Chuck Bryant

Really?

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

I believe it.

Josh Clark

Thank you Al Gore.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah.

Josh Clark

Stupid global warming.

Chuck Bryant

But that's not what you were gonna talk about anyway. I just totally sidetracked you, didn't I?

Josh Clark

Yeah, but I went with it, as is my way.

Chuck Bryant

So what does August mean?

Josh Clark

August means that we are two - no, one month and change away from the Ig Nobel awards.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

Um-hum.

Chuck Bryant

Not to be confused with the Darwin awards.

Josh Clark

No, which Chuck, how many people sent us, when we did that spontaneous human combustion, sent us the Darwin award clip of that Indian man on top of the train?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, getting electrocuted.

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

It was very distressing.

Josh Clark

It is.

Chuck Bryant

And only about half of those said, "Be warned what you're about to watch." The others were like, "Check this out."

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

"Kentucky fried dude."

Josh Clark

Yeah, normally, I don't like watching people die, but that one - I don't know. I thought it was kinda interesting.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, distressing.

Josh Clark

Sure.

Chuck Bryant

So was he a Darwin award winner?

Josh Clark

Yeah, I can't remember what for, but he was definitely an award winner.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, the Darwin awards are a different deal. Those people are generally chided for stupidity. And the Ig Nobel Prize winners are not made fun of.

Josh Clark

Plus, the Ig Nobel awards actually recognize honest to goodness genuine scientific research.

Chuck Bryant

Yep, left of center scientific research.

Josh Clark

A little bit.

Chuck Bryant

But scientific research nonetheless.

Josh Clark

So the Ig Nobel awards are coming up as I said October 1st. They're actually going to have a live webcast this year.

Chuck Bryant

Oh, really?

Josh Clark

Yeah, beginning at 7:15 Eastern Standard Time and I imagine you'll be able to find the webcast or at least a link to it on improbableresearch.com.

Chuck Bryant

Right, well, MPR every year broadcasts it the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Josh Clark

This year it's the day before Thanksgiving.

Chuck Bryant

Oh, is it?

Josh Clark

I believe so.

Chuck Bryant

Well, look at you.

Josh Clark

Yeah, but if you don't wanna wait and you wanna see it live as it happens -

Chuck Bryant

Exactly.

Josh Clark

Yeah, Friday, November 27th, the day after Thanksgiving.

Chuck Bryant

So what are these? We should go ahead and tell people. It's a riff on two things: on the Nobel Prize and the word "ignoble," which means of low character or inferior quality.

Josh Clark

Right. And I have to say that Mark Abrahams, the guy who is the editor of Improbable Research, which is a scientific humor magazine - now it's a website - he kind of does a little fancy footwork here or there.

Chuck Bryant

What do you mean?

Josh Clark

Well, he says that they're not -

Josh Clark

Yeah, he's like, "We're not making fun of people, but we're making fun of people."

Chuck Bryant

But he calls it the Ig Nobel Prize.

Josh Clark

Right. He's saying like, "This is actually to spark curiosity in science, but we're celebrating research that shouldn't be replicated or reproduced." So he's kind of all over the place.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, he wants to have his cake and eat it too a little bit.

Josh Clark

He does. And boy how does he. Ever since I think 1991, they've done - they've handed out Ig Nobel Prizes for all sorts of stuff and -

Chuck Bryant

It's - I like it. I think it's fun.

Josh Clark

Sure. And most people do take it lightheartedly. I have a very famous case that I can go into later on of someone who did not take it very lightheartedly, but it's meant to be very humorous. And if you look at some of the award winners every year, you can see why. So each year they give a prize out for - in ten different categories, right?

Chuck Bryant

Yes. Do you want me to go through those?

Josh Clark

Might as well.

Chuck Bryant

Those categories, Josh are: nutrition, peace, archaeology, biology, medicine, cognitive science, economics, physics, chemistry and literature; pretty cool.

Josh Clark

Yeah, and this - like I said, this is actually legitimate research. Sometimes they're given out to patent holders, but a lot of the times also, if you've had a study published in a legitimate journal, you can - you're a candidate. You can be a candidate. I think they get like 5,000 nominations every year and they sort through all of them.

Chuck Bryant

Right. You can nominate yourself.

Josh Clark

Right. And the study doesn't have to have been done in the year that the prizes are given out.

Chuck Bryant

Oh, really?

Josh Clark

Yeah. Actually Chuck, back in 1994, some researchers at Wright Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio were working on a project that they entitled "Harassing, annoying and bad guy identifying chemicals," right?

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

And they sought $7.5 million for research grants.

Chuck Bryant

So this is a real deal.

Josh Clark

It is. I've actually seen the documents from the Air Force. And basically, what they were coming up with was a non-lethal project of chemicals that - one of them was basically a chemical that would - they would launch behind enemy lines and it would arouse the ire of stinging insects in the area. So they go in and attack the enemy. Another one was to create I think chronic or prolonged halitosis among enemy soldiers so they couldn't stand to be around one another. And then there was the one that got the Ig Nobel Award.

Chuck Bryant

Correct, the infamous gay bomb.

Josh Clark

Yes. It says that this is under the category three chemicals: chemicals that affect human behavior so that discipline and morale in enemy units is adversely affected. One distasteful, but completely non-lethal example would be strong aphrodisiacs, especially if the chemical also caused homosexual behavior. So yeah, the Air Force was working on a gay bomb.

Chuck Bryant

How much money did they put toward this?

Josh Clark

Well, hold on. It won the 2007 Ig Nobel Peace Prize.

Chuck Bryant

Oh, the Peace Prize?

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

Oh, that's good.

Josh Clark

How much money: $7.5 million.

Chuck Bryant

Wow.

Josh Clark

And that was 1994; don't know what exactly came of it, but -

Chuck Bryant

And the Air Force didn't take kindly to this, correct? They kind of -

Josh Clark

They did not show up to receive their award.

Chuck Bryant

Right. I don't think they ever had a statement to the contrary, that they were upset, but yeah, they didn't show up and say, "Hey. Thanks. This whole gay bomb thing didn't work out, but thanks."

Josh Clark

"Thanks for the props."

Chuck Bryant

Yeah. Who judges these things?

Josh Clark

Actually, what's crazy is that some Nobel award winners like real Nobel award winners serve on the board of governors to decide who is going to get an Ig Nobel prize.

Chuck Bryant

True. Right, you know who also has? The professor from Gilligan's Island.

Josh Clark

No.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah.

Josh Clark

Holy cow.

Chuck Bryant

Russell Johnson served one year.

Josh Clark

Sweet.

Chuck Bryant

And apparently, they do that. They get celebrities and certain actors and athletes to be on the panel. And they said regular street Joes; your average Joe off the street. They'll put them on the panel too.

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

And it's held at Harvard. Well, it used to be at MIT and now it's at Harvard. They have a big ceremony every year. And I think the prize laureates are able to give a one-minute acceptance speech is all.

Josh Clark

Yeah, they have Little Miss Cutie Pooh who has to - who basically shoves them off stage when they start exceeding their minute.

Josh Clark

And the criteria for Little Miss Cutie Pooh is that she must be an adorable eight-year-old with ice water in her veins and from the Boston area. And they're actually looking for applicants right now.

Chuck Bryant

Really?

Josh Clark

Yeah, so if you're listening in Boston and you're an eight-year-old -

Chuck Bryant

Terror?

Josh Clark

Yeah. You might want to apply.

Chuck Bryant

With a shrill voice. Bring it. The award itself, Josh is different every year, which is kinda cool. They have different designs each year and one of them was the cereal box labeled "Ig Nobel Os." It was kinda fun.

Josh Clark

Yeah. And that actually kinda leads as a nice segway into the discussion about this one guy who, very famously, derided the Ig Nobel awards as stifling science, or at the very least, making fun of it, of serious scientific research.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, he was not happy about it.

Josh Clark

No. Bob May?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah.

Josh Clark

It was in 1995. Bob May was the head of the science ministry for the UK. So he was pretty big cheese. I imagine you could put him on par with maybe the Surgeon General or the head of the National Science Foundation here. And he came out and he wrote a letter to Improbable Research and he also had one published in Nature where he just railed on the Ig Nobel organizers and Improbable Research.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, he said not to ever award another one to anyone from England.

Josh Clark

No, and the -

Chuck Bryant

Which I thought was kind of like, "Hey, thanks."

Josh Clark

The people who were getting the award that year had been doing research. They were from the University of East Anglia, who I have to say, is the University that produces some really entertaining studies, but this one was the research into the effects or what makes soggy cereal or cereal soggy.

Chuck Bryant

That's good research.

Josh Clark

Right. Well, he said, "Don't give it to these people. Don't ever give it to another British scientist again." And actually, he thought he had just put the final stamp of disapproval on it. Actually, it created this huge outcry in the scientific community about how stuffy the British scientific establishment is.

Chuck Bryant

He's certainly not doing very much to quell stereotypes, is he?

Josh Clark

No, he wasn't. And in 2000 his successor actually went - no 2002 - actually went to the Ig Nobel awards to basically show that, "Hey, Great Britain's back on board, baby."

Chuck Bryant

That's good. I think science, the more you can laugh at certain things and have fun with it, the better because you wanna turn other people onto science. You don't wanna turn them off by thinking that we're all so stuffy and uptight that we can't laugh at ourselves.

Josh Clark

You just gave me yet another segway. Speaking of turning people on, the 2000 Ig Nobel Prize winner for medicine was a guy named Dr. Pek Van Andel.

Chuck Bryant

Is that a real name?

Josh Clark

Yes, it is. He's - I think he's Dutch.

Chuck Bryant

It sounds like pseudonym.

Josh Clark

He won the 2000 - you would think it might be. He won the 2000 Ig Nobel Prize for medicine for making the first MRI video human reproductive organs while they're engaged in the act of coitus.

Chuck Bryant

Really?

Josh Clark

Yeah. It became -

Chuck Bryant

Did you see this?

Josh Clark

I did and it is an MRI porno. It's crazy.

Chuck Bryant

So basically, he had two people performing intercourse inside an MRI machine for this?

Josh Clark

Yes.

Chuck Bryant

Wow.

Josh Clark

And yeah, he has a video of it and it's up on YouTube actually. It's Improbable Research No. 119, I believe.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

And I should probably say if you are listening and -

Chuck Bryant

18 and over.

Josh Clark

- you're watching - you're listening to this at work and you're about to open another tab, you might wanna take it easy; wait until you get home. And if you're 12, don't watch this yet. At least don't tell your parents that it was Josh and Chuck who told you about this.

Chuck Bryant

Right. Should we talk about some more of these prizes?

Josh Clark

Yeah, dude. It's time.

Chuck Bryant

I think Robert Lamb, who wrote this awesome piece of work probably had a lot of fun with this one. He wrote that in 2003 Kees W. Moeliker did a study on the existence of homosexual necrophiliac ducks. And this is all real.

Josh Clark

Yeah, actually, this study led to dead duck day in the Netherlands now.

Chuck Bryant

Really?

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

Well, funny you should say the Netherlands because there was one in New Zealand about exploding pants among New Zealand farmers in the 1930s. Someone studied that too.

Josh Clark

Yeah, what was up with that?

Chuck Bryant

I have no idea. I didn't see the final outcome.

Josh Clark

I went on the Improbable Research and found some other winners, Chuck. There's some pretty wacky stuff out there, or at the very least, you have to think about it: when somebody undertakes this, a study, they're very serious about it. They want to get to the bottom of it. And obviously, if you look at it like the gay bomb, they didn't say "The gay bomb plus arousing stinging bees" and there's legitimate research associated with it. It's the gay bomb. They're picking out the funniest angle of looking at this, but there is some legitimate - there is very much legitimate research put into this. And you have to imagine funding for this research. Somebody said, "Okay, yeah. Go check out necrophiliac homosexual ducks."

Chuck Bryant

Right. And then it's published, usually in a medical journal.

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

I have one from last year that was pretty funny. In the field of chemistry, Sharee Umpierre, Joseph Hill and Deborah Anderson discovered that Coca-Cola is an effective spermicide and CY Hong, CC Shieh, P Wu and BN Chiang accidentally proved that it is not an effective spermicide in the same year. So they were both awarded the award for chemistry, which I thought was pretty funny.

Josh Clark

And they all showed up to receive it.

Chuck Bryant

Oh, they did?

Josh Clark

To accept it, yeah; both sides of the studies. I think it was last year, Chuck that Ivan R Schwab and Phillip R.A. May won the prize for ornithology.

Chuck Bryant

What was that?

Josh Clark

They researched why woodpeckers don't get headaches.

Chuck Bryant

Really?

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

Or why they give people headaches is what I would have followed up with.

Josh Clark

No.

Chuck Bryant

No?

Josh Clark

Huh-uh.

Chuck Bryant

Last year in nutrition - this one, I thought was pretty funny. Brian Wansink investigated people's appetite for mindless eating and his trick was he had a self-refilling bowl of soup in front of them that they didn't realize was constantly refilling itself, but he would stuffy if they would just keep on eating and eating without thinking about it.

Josh Clark

Awesome. I could go for a self-refilling bowl of soup.

Chuck Bryant

Really?

Josh Clark

Yeah, depending on the soup; loaded baked potato, definitely.

Chuck Bryant

Oh yeah.

Josh Clark

I've got one. You ready?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah.

Josh Clark

The Ig Nobel Prize for mathematics in 2007 went to Nick Svenson and Piers Barnes of the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organization. They calculated the number of photographs you have to take to ensure that nobody in a group photo will have their eyes closed in one of them.

Chuck Bryant

Really?

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

Do you have the stat?

Josh Clark

No, I don't, but if you want the stat, you can read the June 2006 issue of Velocity and the article's called "Blink-free Photos Guaranteed."

Chuck Bryant

I've got one for you too.

Josh Clark

We could do this all day.

Chuck Bryant

We could, but this one is actually - could be real - have real applications. In aviation, they discovered that hamsters recover from jetlag more quickly when given Viagra. So there might be something to that. Jetlag's a problem for some people and maybe something in the Viagra could actually help humans because rats and hamsters and humans all kinda are wired the same.

Josh Clark

Well, I don't know if that's groundbreaking research as much as it is just proving conventional wisdom, you know?

Chuck Bryant

Well, you think so with Viagra?

Josh Clark

Everybody knows Viagra cures jetlag in rodents.

Chuck Bryant

Okay, sorry.

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

You got another one?

Josh Clark

I do. Can you tell by the look on my face?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, you were gasping.

Josh Clark

2007, the medicine prize went to some researchers from the University of Tennessee College of Medicine. They did some research into terminating hiccups by digital rectal massage. And digital in this case means your finger.

Chuck Bryant

Oh okay. I was out - you know that's funny. I read that earlier and I was like, "How can you get a digital rectal massage?" I was thinking digitizing. All right, I wasn't thinking fingers. That makes sense.

Josh Clark

You got anymore; you wanna do another couple?

Chuck Bryant

Actually, there was one.

Josh Clark

What?

Chuck Bryant

The guy who studied strippers and found that strippers get more tips when they're ovulating.

Josh Clark

Yeah, they won the economics prize last year.

Chuck Bryant

I thought that was pretty interesting.

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

So in essence, it's a lot of fun. They're kinda poking fun, but it is some legitimate research going on. And I just think it's a good time.

Josh Clark

I agree. And if you're interested in checking it out, as I said, the Ig Nobel Prizes are gonna be on. There's gonna be a live webcast at 7:15 Eastern on October 1st. If you wanna find out who ends up being Miss Cutie Pooh for 2009 -

Josh Clark

In a wig.

Chuck Bryant

Eight-year-old, steely cold.

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, I could hear it.

Josh Clark

Yeah. So, Chuck I guess that's it, right? You wanna read this? I have to say you said Robert Lamb wrote a great article. I agree. I think this article has one of the best introductions on the site.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, it's a good one.

Josh Clark

You can find that by typing in Ig and then space and Nobel on the handy search bar on howstuffworks.com, and since I said that, that means, my friends that it is time for Listener Mail [noise].

Chuck Bryant

Yes indeed, Josh. I'm just gonna call this answer to our query about the biggest badass of World War II.

Josh Clark

Yes, Chuck. I'm very excited about this one.

Chuck Bryant

We got a lot of response actually. We called, if you remember correctly, just to recap, we did a thing on Japanese stragglers.

Josh Clark

Wait. Let's go to the way back machine and listen to what we said.

Chuck Bryant

Okay. [Noise]

Josh Clark

In contrast to your coy was the baddest dude in World War II probably. As a matter of fact, I invite our listeners to e-mail us anybody who can - any single individual who can top the man we're about to talk about in badness, okay?

Chuck Bryant

I agree. And Josh will personally e-mail you back and debate you.

Josh Clark

And there it is.

Chuck Bryant

So we posted the - Onada was one of the biggest Rambo's of the war. And we challenged people to send in someone badder, and people did. We got a lot of responses.

Josh Clark

Yeah, but there was one that had overwhelming support.

Chuck Bryant

There was. There were actually a couple. We wanna give a special - I guess you would call it a runner up to Audie Murphy, famous American actor and soldier, baby face, like a buck 25 -

Josh Clark

But yeah, ifyou started shooting at him, he went crazy.

Chuck Bryant

And he was awesome and he was super bad, but I think he gets a little attention because he was a real small guy.

Josh Clark

And he was American.

Chuck Bryant

And he was American and he had such a cherub face, like people think, "Wow he's extra bad because he was tough and he was so little." We got some votes. There was some British guy that was pretty bad, another couple of Japanese dudes, but -

Josh Clark

Oh wait.

Chuck Bryant

Do you have another one?

Josh Clark

No, go ahead.

Chuck Bryant

But we have a winner.

Josh Clark

Yes, clear winner. This guy is so bad.

Chuck Bryant

This is the Simo Häyhä. The nickname for him was white death.

Josh Clark

Yes, can I tell this guy's story?

Chuck Bryant

Please.

Josh Clark

All right, so he was a Finnish farmer and he was just basically doing his own thing when the Russians invaded Finland. He didn't -

Chuck Bryant

The Winter War.

Josh Clark

Yes. He didn't like this one bit. So basically, he took a standard bolt action rifle without a sight -

Chuck Bryant

Yeah. No, no, it had a sight; no scope.

Josh Clark

No scope, sorry; yes. And went out into the woods, the sub arctic woods of Finland where it gets to about 40 degrees below Fahrenheit and just basically sat up in trees or in blinds and waited. And he didn't have to wait very long. Over the course of one year, just using this old rifle, he killed 500 Russians.

Chuck Bryant

505.

Josh Clark

As a sniper.

Chuck Bryant

As a sniper.

Josh Clark

A lot of these people, when the Russians were finally alerted that there was one sniper out there that was causing them all these problems, they sent detachments with the specific mission of going to kill him.

Chuck Bryant

Find the White Death.

Josh Clark

Yeah, that's when he got the name, the White Death. So they send detachment after detachment out and he just murders every single one of them.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, he killed 200 people with a submachine gun. So that, I guess, would be like the close-up fight, so 505 -

Josh Clark

He's up to 705, 705 confirmed kills in a year. Finally, somebody gets close enough to him to shoot him in the face with an exploding bullet and it still didn't kill him.

Chuck Bryant

Yep, he was shot in the jaw. Rumor has it that2 he shot the other sniper before losing consciousness. So the guy that just shot him, before he passed out, he killed him; immediate retribution. And the guy who wrote in with the best e-mail says, "Unofficially, he had over 800 kills." And this was in - under 100 days. It was less than a year.

Josh Clark

Wow.

Chuck Bryant

So he said -

Josh Clark

He was just a killing machine.

Chuck Bryant

Think about it. That is at least five kills per day, plus 200 kills with a World War II submachine gun and he still didn't die.

Josh Clark

Nope. I know. He lost consciousness and woke up apparently the day World War II ended.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, and he lived until 1998. So I think the White Death - I'm gonna vote for him.

Josh Clark

Oh, hands down. He is the biggest badass of World War II.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, although some people are gonna write in and say, "Yeah, but this was sniper stuff and Audie Murphy fought people with a knife."

Josh Clark

I gotta tell you, Audie Murphy is, to me, a very close second, but the White Death first of all, the name alone; 40 degrees below Fahrenheit just sitting out there sniping Russians. I think he's - I think he wins the award in my opinion.

Chuck Bryant

He does. So I wanna give credit where credit is due here. We wanna thank Carson from Toronto. Actually, it's a joke. I'm making a joke. He's actually from Edmonton and he said, "Please don't say I'm from Toronto."

Josh Clark

Got you.

Chuck Bryant

And he also said something about eating habaneras and mentioning that so his friends would know it's really him.

Josh Clark

Okay.

Chuck Bryant

So Carson, we've done so. So Carson from Edmonton, Tim in New York City, Devon from Georgia and Adrianne all wrote in with White Death and I think there were actually more, so if I left you off -

Josh Clark

Yeah. No, there are definitely more.

Chuck Bryant

That's what I mean.

Josh Clark

And also, there's a really cool article at cracked.com about Rambo or basically real life soldiers who make Rambo look like something or other.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, a wuss.

Josh Clark

Yeah. That was worth reading. And if you wanna send us an e-mail about anything at all, White Death or other wise, you can send that to stuffpodcast@howstuffworks.com.

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