Where Angels Dread

Spaced Out


April 8, 2002

The not so Nobel Prize


The most famous award for human achievement is the Noble Prize, awarded in the areas of Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, Peace and Economics. The monetary value of the award, have risen from $150,782 in 1901 to $10,000,000 in 2001.  The lowest amount awarded was $114,935 in 1923. The money, though lucrative, pales in comparison to the accolades, honor, recognition, respect and publicity received by the recipients of this famous award.


The prizes were the brainchild of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. While working for a private laboratory of a famous chemist, Mr. Nobel met Ascanio Sobrero, the person who invented nitroglycerine. Nitroglycerine is made by mixing glycerin with sulphuric and nitric acids and is a powerful liquid explosive. Nobel was very interested in manufacturing nitroglycerine and putting it to practical use. The experiments on producing nitroglycerine were dangerous and led to many explosions, including one that killed his brother. Eventually, he discovered that the liquid could be converted to a powder (by mixing with silica) and then stuffed (carefully) into tubes and then used to blow things apart.


Nobel went into production of this silica-nitroglycerine tubes—which he called dynamite, and soon became rather rich. He signed his will in 1895 and after his death in 1896 it was discovered that he had left much of his riches to be used to give prizes for achievement. The first Nobel Prize was awarded in 1901.


If you take a shower in a stall equipped with a shower curtain, the curtain tends to blow inwards and adhere to your wet body. This irritating behavior is counter-intuitive, as one would expect the gushing water would send air currents out of the stall and blow the curtain out—yet it does blow inwards. Though it is a vexing nuisance, it can (and has been) quite easily explained, as a manifestation of the Bernoulli Effect. The water spray creates a wind, blowing inside the shower stall, and causes the air pressure to fall and this pulls the curtain inwards. The Bernoulli Effect is a remarkably useful effect that enables planes to fly and carburetors to work.


The above explanation for the curtain movement was however not convincing enough for David Schmidt of the University of Massachusetts. Using a home computer and modeling software he built a model of the shower stall in the computer’s memory, the space divided into 50,000 sections. Then using formulas of Computational Fluid Dynamics, he could simulate the effect of water spraying though these sections. His software showed the existence of air vortices that spin like hurricanes and cause a low-pressure area that sucks the curtain in. For this pioneering work, which some might say is a complete waste of time; Dr. Schmidt was awarded the 2002 Ig Noble award in Physics.


Not as famous as the Nobel Award, the Ig Nobel award is almost as hard to garner. It is awarded to ten winners each year, by the publishers of the Annals of Improbable Research or AIR. The Ig Noble awards honor people whose achievements "cannot or should not be reproduced." The winners are selected by the Ig Nobel Board of Governors. The Board is composed of scientists (including several Nobel Laureates), science writers, athletes, public officials, and other individuals of greater or lesser eminence. By tradition, for balance, on the final day of deliberations a random passerby is invited help make the decision.


In 2001, the 11th Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony was held on October 4, 2001, at Harvard University's Sanders Theater. Ten new Ig Nobel Prizes were awarded. Seven of the ten winners traveled to the ceremony at their own expense. The prizes were handed to them by a group of genuine, though bemused Nobel Laureates, in the presence of 1200 attendees.


The award for Medicine went to Peter Barss of McGill University. He investigated the injuries caused by falling coconuts in Papua, New Guinea. Sifting through medical records of patients over a 4-year period, he discovered four people afflicted with this mishap, and two of them had died instantly while two needed surgery for head injuries. The result of this study, entitled “Injuries due to Falling Coconuts” was published in the Journal of Trauma in 1984. The award justly rewarded such misguided perseverance.


The Biology award went to the inventor of “Under Ease” a brand of tight fitting, airtight underwear, fitted with a charcoal filter. This invention ensures that no gas bearing objectionable odor escapes from the body of the wearer. It is hard to put a value on such an invention, but they are available for sale, for $24.95 each, and extra filters cost $9.95 for two.


Elasticity is not just a property of materials; it is also studied in Economics. Price elasticity is a phenomenon where raising the price of a commodity does not seem to affect consumption at first, but then, steep price increases cause consumption to drop. This phenomenon is particularly noticeable for addictive substances like tobacco or alcohol. Two researchers published a paper called “Dying to Save Taxes: Evidence from Estate Tax Returns on the Death Elasticity”. In this paper, they show that greatly lowering the tax rate on inheritance taxes caused people to postpone their deaths. For this gem of economic research Joel Slemrod and Wojcieh Kopczug bagged the Economics Award.


John Richards the founder of the Apostrophe Preservation society won the Literature award. John Richards spent most of his working life in journalism, about three quarters of it as a reporter and the remaining as a sub editor. The society works hard to prevent misuse (or abuse) of the little punctuation called the apostrophe. They take a dim view of English sentences such as “Banana’s for sale” or “used CD’s available” or “your not invited”.


Lawrence Sherman of Miami University rightfully received the award in Psychology for studying “group glee” in preschool children. Group glee is the contagious phenomenon of joyful screaming and laughing that spreads quickly among groups of children sparked by innocuous events. The study found that laughter and group glee are different. The findings are published in the journal, Child Development, March 1975 and is entitled "An Ecological Study of Glee in Small Groups of Preschool Children."



Dr. Jack and Rexella Van Impe are a cuple who run the Jack Van Impe Ministries in Michigan. The ministry is the “Bible Prophecy Portal of the Internet”. Amongst other things they produce a weekly 30-minute TV show called “Jack Van Impe Presents” which is broadcast on the Internet. On the show aired on March 31st 2001, they presented irrefutable evidence that black holes fulfill all the technical requirements of hell. This research result resulted in their award, for Astrophysics.


The Peace Prize went to Viliumas Malinauskus of Grutas, Lithuania, for creating a theme park that mimics a Soviet prison camp. Named “The Stalin Park” it is part amusement park, part open-air museum. Circled by barbed wire and guard towers, the park is dotted with some 65 bronze and granite statues of former Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin, and communist VIPs. 


If someone patented the wheel whenever this useful gadget was invented, he or she would have definitely become the world’s richest person. Luckily for us no one did so. At least, not until 2001, when John Keogh of Australia filed for a patent on the "circular transportation facilitation device" and received it. The Australian Patent Office justifies the wheel patent saying it is a “innovative patent” and does not have the same protections as a full patent. For the contribution to progress ensured by John Keogh and the Australian Patent Office they jointly received the Technology Award.


Rhinotillexomania is a recent term coined to describe compulsive nose picking”, according to Chittaranjan Andrade and B.S. Srihari of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bangalore, India. They launched a probe into the nose-picking behavior of 200 adolescents and came to the conclusion that “Nose picking is common in adolescents. It is often associated with other habitual behaviors. Nose picking may merit closer epidemiologic and nosologic scrutiny.” For their paper entitled "A Preliminary Survey of Rhinotillexomania in an Adolescent Sample," published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, June 2001, they received the Medicine award.


The Ig Nobel prizes are not even a close contender to the real thing, but it a painstaking effort of many dedicated people who run the Annals of Improbable Research. Located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and headed by Marc Abrahams, they carefully go over all the nominations to ensure that they are real. Though the ten awards are picked for their irrelevance, the publications are checked for existence. Yet another example, that truth is stranger than fiction.


Partha Dasgupta is on the faculty of the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Arizona State University in Tempe. His specializations are in the areas of Operating Systems, Cryptography and Networking. His homepage is at http://cactus.eas.asu.edu/partha



Partha Dasgupta