Every year, the Nobel prizes are handed out. And every year, people fret that the selection process has been politicized and important contributions will be overlooked. But this year, groundbreaking research on bras, beer bottles, and panda poo is getting the attention it deserves.
The awards come by way of the "Ig Nobel" committee, a parody of the Nobel Prize process. Sponsored by the U.S.-based publication "Improbable Research," winners are judged by their imaginative explorations in science, medicine, and technology.
For example, if you were to wallop someone on the head with a beer bottle in a bar fight, could it kill the person? Thanks to Switzerland's Stephan Bolliger of the University of Bern's forensic sciences department, we learn: "Beer bottles, intact beer bottles, certainly do suffice to break the human skull."
Bolliger says that his research was inspired by a number of bar-brawl cases in which he was called in for expert testimony. After a brief experiment involving a bathtub and some modeling clay, he found that the human skull can fracture and suffer "potentially lethal" bleeding as the result of a bottle assault.
The next time he is called into court to provide expert testimony, he says, he will have his response ready: "Yes, your honor, beer bottles will suffice in fracturing the human skull and yes, your honor, empty beer bottles are even more dangerous."
Perhaps surprising, but true. By dropping 1-kilogram steel balls from different heights, Bolliger and his team found that more energy was required to break the empty beer bottles. They won the Ig Nobel Peace Prize.
One Bra = Two Masks
Or take another winner, Ukrainian-born Elena Bodvar. She was a young medical-school graduate when the Chornobyl nuclear disaster spread radioactive material across Soviet Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia in 1986.
For Bodvar, who worked with children affected by the accident after it happened, it was "impossible not to think about [the] necessity of protective devices on an individual level. That's when my initial idea was born."
Her brainchild, the convertible bra mask, actually makes two masks -- one per cup -- so that "we [women] can save the life of a man next to us," she explains, pointing out that the world's male-to-female population is roughly equal.
"A person can reduce the consequences of harmful airborne particles such as those released by natural disasters, like the dust storm in Sydney, Australia, just a couple of weeks ago, or human-made disasters like fire, explosion, terrorist, chemical, or biological and others," Bodvar says.
Quick to point out that a gas-protecting layer and additional lock does not affect the cost or aesthetics of the bra -- not to mention its primary function -- Bodvar hopes to find partners in Ukraine for the product's market launch. She also hopes the bra, which won the contest's public-health prize, can one day offer protection from other substances, like tear gas.
Despite the Ig Nobel's easy-going motto -- "first laugh, then think!" -- the award is not without its influential backers.
Economist and former Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman spoke in the tradition of the "24/7" speeches at the Ig Nobel awards ceremony on October 1. He lectured using complicated financial terms intended to confuse his listeners for 24 seconds only to conclude with a seven-word explanation of his job: "Greedy people, competing, make the world go round."
And a number of other former Nobel Prize winners were also on hand to celebrate the achievements of people like Donald Unger, who cracked the knuckles on his left hand twice a day for over 60 years in order to find out if it caused arthritis. (It doesn't.) He won the Ig Nobel Prize for medicine.
Two Japanese researchers demonstrated that bacteria taken from the feces of giant pandas can reduce the mass of kitchen waste by over 90 percent. They received the biology prize. A team of Mexican researchers won the chemistry prize for figuring out how to make diamonds from tequila.
British scientists Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson were recognized for their work on cow-milk production. They found that giving a cow a name makes her produce more milk. Rowlinson says he wished he had titled their cow work "the milk of human kindness," a literal take on a phrase from Shakespeare's Macbeth.
"Now, I'm not suggesting that there's something magical in a name," Rowlinson says. "I think that having a name is just part of the overall package. It's part of the care and attention between man and the animal, it's part of the concept of TLC, tender loving care."
Fun With Science
The competition also gives science some tender loving care, says beer-bottle researcher Bolliger.
"It's very important that the broad population also sees that scientists aren't humorless, old, withered men and women who do something strange that nobody understands, but that science can actually be great fun," Bolliger says.
After former Nobel Prize winners modeled Bodvar's bra mask, winners stepped up to receive their trophies: a pair of dice placed on top of a piece of foam, a celebration of this year's "risk" theme.
Too bad the winner of the economics prize -- the management and auditors of four Icelandic banks, couldn't make it.
They were honored for experimentally demonstrating that financial market fluctuations can rapidly convert tiny banks into mammoth financial institutions. But they didn't stop there. They also volunteered data showing that you can reverse the process and decimate the national economy.