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What I've Learned
In 2010, one of my columns was about the lying down and standing up of cows. In that column I mentioned a paper titled, "Are Cows More Likely to Lie Down the Longer They Stand?"
Five researchers, based at the Scottish Agricultural College, tried to predict when a cow would lie down and when it would stand up. What they found is that the longer a cow is lying down, the more likely it is to stand up.
The opposite, however, turned out not to be true. Once a cow stood up, there was no predicting when it might decide to lie back down. Could be sooner. Could be later.
This month — on September 12th, to be exact — that study, the one I cited three years ago, won the 2013 Ig Nobel Prize for Probability.
The Ig Nobel Prizes (pronounced ig no-BEL and often referred to as Iggies) are organized by the magazine, Annals of Improbable Research, and presented each fall at Harvard University's Sanders Theater. According to the website, www.improbable.com, the Ig Nobel Prizes "honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology."
Ig Nobel Prizes shouldn't be confused with Nobel Prizes, though each year, actual Nobel Prize laureates are at the ceremony to physically hand the winners their Iggies.
Because the Ig Nobels have a silly, somewhat mocking tone about them, those selected for the prize are quietly contacted before announcements are made to give them a chance to turn down the honor. Nearly all decide to accept and also come to the ceremony.
At the ceremony, winners are given only 60 seconds to explain their research and say their thank-yous. Two days later, however, an event called the Ig Informal Lectures is held, giving the winners a projector and more time to explain their research.
Remember last week's column about the harmful effects of highlighted textbooks? The 2009 article that I based the column on was updated research from a 1997 study called, "The Effects of Pre-Existing Inappropriate Highlighting on Reading Comprehension," which won the 2002 Ig Nobel Prize for Literature.
Each year, the names of the prize categories can change a bit, depending on what research is being honored.
Here are some of the categories and winning topics for this year.
The Medicine Prize was awarded to researchers from Japan for assessing "the effect of listening to opera, on heart transplant patients who are mice."
The Psychology Prize was given to French researchers for confirming, by experiment, that "people who think they are drunk also think they are attractive."
There was a joint prize given in biology and astronomy. An international team discovered that when dung beetles get lost, "they can navigate their way home by looking at the Milky Way."
The Physics Prize was given to Italian researchers for discovering that some people would be physically capable of running across the surface of a pond -- if those people and that pond were on the moon."
The worthy winners of the Chemistry Prize were Japanese scientists who, back in 2002, discovered that the "biochemical process by which onions make people cry is even more complicated than scientists previously realized."
This year an Archeology Prize was given. It went to a couple of U.S. scientists — and I'll quote this lest you think I'm making it up -- for parboiling a dead shrew, and then swallowing the shrew without chewing, and then carefully examining everything excreted during subsequent days — all so they could see which bones would dissolve inside the human digestive system, and which bones would not."
The Probability Prize, of course, was given for the cow research previously mentioned.
The 2013 Ig Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus, and to the Belarus State Police. Lukashenko was chosen for "making it illegal to applaud in public," and the Belarus State Police, "for arresting a one-armed man for applauding."
Neither Lukashenko nor the state police were contacted ahead of time about their selection, nor did they attend the ceremony.
For a scientifically hilarious time, go to www.improbable.com where you can watch a 90-minute video of this year's entire ceremony.