Alarms, Fleas and other Knotty Affairs

Could you ever do a comprehensive study on the injuries caused by falling coconuts? Could you have even thought of inventing an alarm clock which runs away and hides? Can you count the exact odds (710,609,175,188,282,000 to 1)?

It takes people with some extraordinary thought process to do this. Unfortunately, till 1991 they were not granted any acknowledgement. Then, the first Ig Nobels were awarded in 1991 for discoveries “that cannot, or should not, be reproduced.”.

Since then, this parody of Nobel Prizes has continued every year with ten people from various categories like chemistry, physics, health, literature and peace getting the prize. This ceremony takes place in early October in Harvard University. The ceremony consists of various inconsequential events which lead to the winner getting his award. The winners travel at their own expense to receive prizes from Nobel Laureates.

In 2003, Dan Meyer got the Ig Nobel Peace prize for studying the medicinal side-effects of sword swallowing. Now really, who could have thought swords had be harmful. In 1998, Troy Hurtubise got the Safety Engineering award for developing and personally testing armour impervious to grizzly bears. Interestingly, Prime Minister Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee of India and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan got the Peace prize for their aggressively peaceful explosions of atomic bombs. They are not alone though, Edward Teller, father of the atom bomb, also got the peace prize “for his lifelong efforts to change the meaning of peace as we know it”. But what is more shocking is that In a revolutionary research, Daniel Simons won the Psychology prize for demonstrating that it is very easy to overlook anything else, when people are paying close attention. Even a woman in a gorilla suit. Why would a woman do that, anyway? But, what a women could do is apply infidelity detection spray to their husband’s underwear. This invention got the Chemistry prize in 1999.

This year, Britain laid claim to two winners. David Sims got the Literature Prize for his narrative exploration of the bastards in workplace, called “You Bastard: A Narrative Exploration of the Experience of Indignation within Organizations.”. His research was prompted by “a fascination of how seemingly fair and balanced people could suddenly abandon hopes of understanding another’s viewpoint and instead write them off as a bastard.” In case you were curious about which kinds of fleas jump higher, be angst no more. Marie-Christine Cadiergues, Christel Joubert, and Michel Franc proved that fleas on dogs jump higher than fleas on cats and this got them this year’s Biology Ig Nobel. My personal favourite is the achievement of Physics prize winner Dorian Raymer who proved mathematically that heaps of string or hair or almost anything else will inevitably tangle themselves up in knots. Now every morning when I have to untangle my hair, I can comfort myself – it is always maths which is the bane of my existence.

Many scientists and journals have lauded this ceremony, insisting that it actually makes one think about the lighter side of science. Many people develop more interest in science and prove that it needn’t always be boring. Who knows the ways in which these experiments, discoveries and inventions end up influencing us? For whatever (ig)nobel purposes they may serve, they certainly have grabbed attention of the common man. These awards serve their function well. They do make one laugh and then THINK! As for me, I simply cannot wait to get that alarm clock and set it off in one of our drab college lectures.

Shravya Jain

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