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Ig Nobel prizes

Think of the Ig Nobels as the Nobel Prizes' cheeky cousins. They were awarded this year for such
unusual research as gas-mask bras, naming cows so they produce more milk and diamonds made from
tequila. Sarah Castor-Perry reports.

Transcript

Sarah Castor-Perry: Now last week on the Science Show we covered the Nobel prizes. But today we're
taking a more light hearted approach, looking at the Ig Nobel prizes. These are awarded every year
around the same time as the real Nobels, but for slightly more unconventional research. The
ceremony was held at Harvard's Sanders Theatre, and the winners got their hands on a very
prestigious prize, as Mark Abrahams explains.

Mark Abrahams: And now let's get it over with, ladies and gentlemen, the awarding of the 2009 Ig
Nobel Prizes. Karen, tell them what they've won.

Karen: This year's winners will each take home an Ig Nobel Prize.

[laughter / applause]

Mark Abrahams: What else?

Karen: Oh, a piece of paper that says they've won an Ig Nobel Prize!

[laughter / applause]

Mark Abrahams: Anything about it?

Karen: Signed by several Nobel laureates.

Mark Abrahams: And is that all?

Karen: What else could they want?

Sarah Castor-Perry: Well exactly. And the prizes are also presented by previous Nobel laureates.
The winners are allowed to make a speech, but have to watch out for Miss Sweetie Poo, an eight year
old girl with a very strict one minute attention span, as you'll hear. Well the first of these
amazing pieces of paper was awarded for the Veterinary Science prize to Catherine Burtenshaw and
Peter Rawlinson of Newcastle University in the UK, for discovering that cows with names give more
milk than cows without names. Peter Rawlinson was there to receive the award.

Peter Rawlinson: At Newcastle we have an interest in interactions between humans and domestic
animals. We undertook a series of studies on young dairy cattle which showed benefits of positive
treatment during rearing. From a survey came the finding that cows with names gave more milk. There
are many that I would like to thank. Some humans, but mainly cows.

[laughter]

Peter Rawlinson: So thank you, thank you to Bluebell, my father's favourite cow, Clover, Buttercup,
have you noticed there's preference for flower names? I could go on with lots of cow names.

Miss Sweetie Poo: Please stop, I'm bored!

Peter Rawlinson: Fortunately for Miss Sweetie Poo, some milk and a cuddly cow!

Miss Sweetie Poo: Please stop!

[applause]

Sarah Castor-Perry: Hm, maybe they should try the small bored child technique on Oscar winners too.
Next up was the Peace prize, won this year by a team from Switzerland who wanted to keep the peace
by researching whether it was worse to be hit over the head with an empty or a full beer bottle.
Stefan Bollinger collected their prize.

Stefan Bollinger: In the film industry, everything looks so easy, for instance in a bar brawl,
somebody can take a bottle and just smash as easy as nothing over somebody else's head. For
instance, [smash] John Wayne wouldn't even flinker. But what's it like in real life? We've been
asked this question on several occasions by members of the call. So we decided to find out whether
we can actually break full beer bottles on a human skull, and if not whether these bottles will
actually break the human skull. We've performed a very simple experiment, we tested the fracture
threshold of full and empty bottles in a drop tower. The full beer bottles broke out 30 joules, the
empty ones at 40 joules. Doesn't sound like much, especially if you're talking about bar brawls and
John Wayne, but if you look at the literature, then a human skull will break somewhere between 14
and 68 joules. So you can actually crack a skull with a beer bottle. And, that's the best thing,
the empty beer bottle is even more capable of inflicting serious harm. And you have all the
enjoyment of the beer before.

[laughter]

Sarah Castor-Perry: So please, don't try this at home, but if you want to hit someone over the head
with a beer bottle, do it once you've drunk it. The bottle that Stefan broke over his own head on
stage was actually a fake, made from something called sugar glass which is commonly used in films
and TV when a person have to have a bottle smashed over their head, or crash through a glass
window. So from the hazard of a bar fight to the hazards of a gas attack.

The Ig Nobel prize for Public Health is awarded this year to Elena Bodnar, Raphael Lee and Sandra
Marajan of Chicago, Illinois, for inventing a brassier that in an emergency can be quickly
converted into a pair of gas masks, one for the brassier wearer and one to be given to some needy
bystander.

[applause]

Here is Elena Bodnar.

Elena Bodnar: Ladies and gentlemen, isn't that wonderful that women have two breasts, not just one?

[laughter]

Elena Bodnar: We can save not only our life, but also the life of a man of our choice next to us. I
would like to thank you my colleagues from the University of Chicago, even more I would like to
thank my dear husband, whose extensive expertise on bra clasps came in very handy when I developed
my first prototype! But it is important to mention that it takes only 25 seconds for average woman
to use this protective personal device. Five seconds to remove, convert and apply your own, and 20
seconds to wonder who the lucky man is she's going to save!

[applause / laugher]

Elena Bodnar: Well the times of naivety and unpreparedness have passed. That's why I always wear
convertible bra mask. Thank you very much.

Host: And now I believe we have a demonstration by the inventor.

Elena Bodnar: I would like to ask for three volunteers, preferably Nobel laureates, to assist me in
demonstration.

Sarah Castor-Perry: And if you'd like to see what it looks like when several Nobel laureates wear
bras over their faces, check out the Science Show website, abc.net.au/rn/scienceshow. A couple of
the other Ignobels also deserve a mention. The Physics prize went to Catherine Whitcomb, Daniel
Lieberman and Lisa Shapiro for discovering why pregnant don't fall forwards with all that extra
weight. Apparently one of the vertebrae in the lower part of the female spine evolved to a
different shape way back when our ancestors first walked on two legs. And if you're not a big fan
of tequila, you may wonder what uses it has other than giving you a massive headache the morning
after. Well, the Chemistry Ignobel went to a Mexican team who showed that you can actually make
diamonds from it. I think I'll stick to its original purpose though, cheers.

Sarah Castor-Perry: So there we have it. A whistlestop tour of the 2009 Ignobel prizes, awarded for
research that makes you laugh, then makes you think. But I think to sum up the whole night, the
last word has to go to Mark Abrahams.

Mark Abrahams: Please remember this final thought. If you didn't win an Ignobel prize tonight, and
especially if you did, better luck next year. Good night!

Robyn Williams: Mark Abrahams is the small, perfectly formed genius behind the Igs. He edits the
annals of improbable research. That report by Sarah Castor-Perry.