2009 Ig Nobel Prizes

You have to love the Ig Nobel prizes! And wonder "what were they thinking" when these people got grant money to study…

Veterinary Medicine

Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson of Newcastle University, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK, for showing that cows who have names give more milk than cows that are nameless.

Reference: "Exploring Stock Managers’ Perceptions of the Human-Animal Relationship on Dairy Farms and an Association with Milk Production," Catherine Bertenshaw [Douglas] and Peter Rowlinson, Anthrozoos, vol. 22, no. 1, March 2009, pp. 59-69.

Peace Prize

Stephan Bolliger, Steffen Ross, Lars Oesterhelweg, Michael Thali and Beat Kneubuehl of the University of Bern, Switzerland, for determining — by experiment — whether it is better to be smashed over the head with a full bottle of beer or with an empty bottle.

Reference: "Are Full or Empty Beer Bottles Sturdier and Does Their Fracture-Threshold Suffice to Break the Human Skull?" Stephan A. Bolliger, Steffen Ross, Lars Oesterhelweg, Michael J. Thali and Beat P. Kneubuehl, Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, vol. 16, no. 3, April 2009, pp. 138-42.


The directors, executives, and auditors of four Icelandic banks — Kaupthing Bank, Landsbanki, Glitnir Bank, and Central Bank of Iceland — for demonstrating that tiny banks can be rapidly transformed into huge banks, and vice versa — and for demonstrating that similar things can be done to an entire national economy.


Javier Morales, Miguel Apátiga, and Victor M. Castaño of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, for creating diamonds from liquid — specifically from tequila.

Reference: "Growth of Diamond Films from Tequila," Javier Morales, Miguel Apatiga and Victor M. Castano, 2008, arXiv:0806.1485.


Donald L. Unger, of Thousand Oaks, California, USA, for investigating a possible cause of arthritis of the fingers, by diligently cracking the knuckles of his left hand — but never cracking the knuckles of his right hand — every day for more than sixty (60) years.

Reference: "Does Knuckle Cracking Lead to Arthritis of the Fingers?", Donald L. Unger, Arthritis and Rheumatism, vol. 41, no. 5, 1998, pp. 949-50.


Katherine K. Whitcome of the University of Cincinnati, USA, Daniel E. Lieberman of Harvard University, USA, and Liza J. Shapiro of the University of Texas, USA, for analytically determining why pregnant women don’t tip over.

Reference: "Fetal Load and the Evolution of Lumbar Lordosis in Bipedal Hominins," Katherine K. Whitcome, Liza J. Shapiro & Daniel E. Lieberman, Nature, vol. 450, 1075-1078 (December 13, 2007).


Ireland’s police service (An Garda Siochana), for writing and presenting more than fifty traffic tickets to the most frequent driving offender in the country — Prawo Jazdy — whose name in Polish means "Driving License".

Public Health

Elena N. Bodnar, Raphael C. Lee, and Sandra Marijan of Chicago, Illinois, USA, for inventing a brassiere that, in an emergency, can be quickly converted into a pair of protective face masks, one for the brassiere wearer and one to be given to some needy bystander.

Reference: U.S. patent # 7255627, granted August 14, 2007 for a "Garment Device Convertible to One or More Facemasks."


Gideon Gono, governor of Zimbabwe’s Reserve Bank, for giving people a simple, everyday way to cope with a wide range of numbers — from very small to very big — by having his bank print bank notes with denominations ranging from one cent ($.01) to one hundred trillion dollars ($100,000,000,000,000).

Reference: "Zimbabwe’s Casino Economy — Extraordinary Measures for Extraordinary Challenges," Gideon Gono, ZPH Publishers, Harare, 2008, ISBN 978-079-743-679-4.


Fumiaki Taguchi, Song Guofu, and Zhang Guanglei of Kitasato University Graduate School of Medical Sciences in Sagamihara, Japan, for demonstrating that kitchen refuse can be reduced more than 90% in mass by using bacteria extracted from the feces of giant pandas.

Reference: "Microbial Treatment of Kitchen Refuse With Enzyme-Producing Thermophilic Bacteria From Giant Panda Feces," Fumiaki Taguchia, Song Guofua, and Zhang Guanglei, Seibutsu-kogaku Kaishi, vol. 79, no 12, 2001, pp. 463-9

More chives and no-one gets hurt

My house is near the best spice shop I’ve ever met, Penzeys. They have every herb, spice, seasoning, and blend you could imagine, all in jars for you to smell, plus an amazing hot chocolate mix. The Network Guy at work also loves Penzeys, and we have an arrangement. When I’m going on a spice run, I drop him a note. He sends back a list and slides past my cube with a $20. The next day I leave an anonymous brown paper bag on his desk. All very surreptitious.

Almost every time, he asks for a bag of freeze-dried chives. I’ve never known anyone go through chives that fast. Thursday morning I get back to my desk to find this:

2009-09 More chives and no-one gets hurt...

"More chives and no-one gets hurt…" Does anyone know a good chive rehab program? I think we have a problem!

I was planning a spice run anyway. Really, I was, I’m not scared at all. They’ll be on his desk on Tuesday.

Mathematics vs. the Zombies

Wired: Mathematical Model for Surviving a Zombie Attack.

It is possible to successfully fend off a zombie attack, according to Canadian mathematicians. The key is to "hit hard and hit often." Oh yes, somebody actually did a study on mathematics of a hypothetical zombie attack, and published it in a book on infectious disease. So, while we still don’t know what to do if a deadly asteroid takes aim at Earth, an unlikely but technically possible situation, we now know what to do in case of a zombie attack.

Having spent a fair amount of time mixing science with beer in the wee hours while trying to finish a thesis, I’m guessing that at some point, a graduate student who had spent far too many hours tweaking a mathematical model of infectious disease in the basement of a Canadian university said something like this: "What would happen if we made it so they could come back to life?"

You can read the full paper, When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection. (PDF file) for yourself, the mathematics paints a grim picture for human survival. From the paper’s conclusion:

In summary, a zombie outbreak is likely to lead to the collapse of civilisation, unless it is dealt with quickly. While aggressive quarantine may contain the epidemic, or a cure may lead to coexistence of humans and zombies, the most effective way to contain the rise of the undead is to hit hard and hit often. As seen in the movies, it is imperative that zombies are dealt with quickly, or else we are all in a great deal of trouble.

One of the sources for the paper is Max Brooks, author of World War Z, which is one of my favourite books (though not the best one to read in the waiting room just before surgery). My maths can’t quite keep up with all of the equations, but I get the general idea. Unless you wipe out the zombies fast, and the zombie event doesn’t last long enough to affect normal birth/death ratios, humans will be wiped out. Even if you do manage to get rid of them, the population will be greatly reduced.

Cod moves in mysterious ways

Back in Guildford I wanted a t-shirt with a picture of a running chicken and the caption "Poultry in Motion". It was a Simon Drew design, I love his sense of humour and drawing style.

These are links to some of his designs on coasters available from Castle Melanine in England.

Can you come up with anything worth drawing?

Going to my cave

I want to go live in a cave. Hubby says it would be the perfect temperature for a server farm, a few mirrors could pipe in extra daylight, you have seventeen thousand square feet to play with, plus a couple of acres outside. You could put in satellite internet, there’s water and electric, three bedrooms, two baths, and twelve thousand feet square feet still unfilled. It’s a cave! It’s a house! What’s not to like?

I’d sell the house tomorrow and go live there. It’s not far away…


BBC News: Don’t be 404, know the tech slang.

A study of new slang terms entering English finds that technology is driving and perpetuating them. For instance, "404" – the error message given when a browser cannot find a webpage – has come to mean "clueless". Slang lexicographer Jonathon Green says that some such terms and abbreviations come about because of the limited speed and space afforded by text messaging. However, an Australian study found that reading "textese" takes more time and results in more mistakes.

Interesting that the error cards on London Transport’s Oyster cards are making their way into slang. Some common HTTP error codes are:

  • 403 – Forbidden
  • 404 – Page Not Found
  • 418 – I’m A Teapot
  • 509 – Bandwidth Limit Exceeded

Error code 418 – I’m A Teapot is part of the HTCPCP/1.0 standard (Hyper Text Coffee Pot Control Protocol), described in RFC 2324 dated April 1st 1998.

Any attempt to brew coffee with a teapot should result in the error code "418 I’m a teapot". The resulting entity body MAY be short and stout.

(For other novel computing applications, checkout the Google PigeonRank system, released on April 1st 2002.)

Nothing original under the sun

BBC News: Dead Parrot sketch ancestor found

An ancestor of Monty Python’s famous Dead Parrot comedy sketch has been found in a joke book dating back to Greece in the 4th Century. Philogelos: The Laugh Addict, which has been translated from Greek manuscripts, contains a joke where a man complains that a slave he was sold had died. "When he was with me, he never did any such thing!" is the reply. In the Python sketch, written 1,600 years later, the shopkeeper claims the dead parrot is "pining for the fjords". The 265 jokes in Philogelos are attributed to a pair of jokers called Hierocles and Philagrius, about whom very little is known.

The Monty Python Parrot Sketch mutated a little over time, the Wikipedia page has an audio clip of it. My favourite rendition was from Margaret Thatcher at the 1990 Conservative Party conference. Hearing her on the nine o’clock news intoning "This is an ex-parrot" in reference to the Liberal Democrat party, whose logo was a stylised orange bird, was priceless.