Tag Archives: Ig Nobel Prize

Vocabulary of Sighs

The Bridge of Sighs, Venice

To the astonishment of no one, research scientists have determined that when humans really have to pee, they can’t think straight. 

The international team of scientists who conducted the study didn’t state it quite that succinctly; their formal conclusion was “Having an extreme urge to void exerted a large negative effect on attentional and working memory functions.”

The methodology was almost cruel; according to the study’s authors, healthy young adults “consumed 250 ml of water every 15 minutes until they could no longer inhibit voiding.”  I guess we should be grateful to these test subjects who were willing to expand their bladders and scientific knowledge at the same time.

That study received the 2011 Ig Nobel prize for Medicine, presented by the Annals of Improbable Research.  As you may recall, the intention of the Ig Nobels is to “honor achievements that make people laugh, and then make them think.”

Among other winners this year was a study entitled “No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise”.  As far as I’m concerned, they spoiled the suspense by putting the conclusion right there in the title, but they got the Physiology award anyway.

The 2011 Ig Nobel winner that I found most intriguing was honored in the Psychology category.  A Norwegian scientist named Karl Halvor Teigen published a summary of several studies under the title “Is a Sigh ‘Just a Sigh’?:  Sighs as Emotional Signals and Responses to a Difficult Task”.  In other words, Dr. Teigen is trying to understand why people sometimes exhale audibly.

He concluded that sighs usually have negative associations; that they are perceived as signs of sadness or defeat or frustration.  In one study, sighs were generated by having subjects attempt to solve difficult puzzles, causing futile attempts at finding a solution.

I’m no scientist, but from my experience sighs can also convey positive emotions like relief or contentment.  When you think about it, a sigh can be a non-verbal way to express any one of a very broad range of ideas, such as:

“After a hard day at work, this hot tub feels great.”  “I guess we should say goodnight, but I don’t want to go.”  “OK, I’ll explain it once more — try listening this time.”  “What’d that sign say?  Road work next 12 miles?”  “Oh man, I’m only on page 12 of this 200-page report about yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise.”  “Finally, the baby’s asleep.”  “I could swear I parked the car here in section B-7.”  “God, you’re beautiful.”

Every one of those thoughts can be conveyed by nothing more than a sigh, right?  Which leads me to believe that it is context that determines the meaning of any particular sigh.  It also suggests that the lyric from the song “As Time Goes By” is probably inaccurate:  a sigh is never just a sigh — it means something.

Hey, I sighed just now!  That probably means that I am deriving enjoyment from pondering a fascinating subject.  Or maybe it means I need to go to the bathroom.

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Science Lurches On

This device could save your life!

This device could save your life!

Down through the centuries, scientists and inventors have come up with countless ways to improve our human existence.  Can you imagine what life would be like without the wheel, without the electric light, without Velcro?  Where would we be, as a culture, if someone hadn’t devised the telegraph (a primitive version of texting)?

Fortunately for us, researchers are still at it, asking questions and dreaming dreams.  The strangest of them are honored each year with something called the Ig Nobel Prize.  Presented at Harvard University by a publication called the Annals of Improbable Research, the awards are handed out by actual Nobel laureates.  This year’s event, held on October 1st, was billed as “The 19th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony”.  The 2009 awards, of which there were a total of ten, included these achievements:

Physics:  To three doctors for analytically determining why pregnant women don’t tip over.

Chemistry:  Won by some scientists from Mexico who have devised a method to create diamonds from tequila.  Who knows — someday tequila may be a girl’s best friend.

Veterinary Medicine:  Presented to researchers who proved that cows with names give more milk than cows that aren’t named.  Could that also be true of other kinds of anonymous donations?

Peace:  This prestigious category was won by four gentlemen who dared to wonder about the effects of getting hit on the head by beer bottles.  Their study, which I tracked down on the internet, was titled “Are Full or Empty Beer Bottles Sturdier and Does Their Fracture-Threshold Suffice to Break the Human Skull?”  The short answer is yes, as reported in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine.  And full bottles, it turns out, shatter at a lower impact energy than empty bottles.

One can’t help speculating how many bottles had been emptied when the research team came up with the idea for the study.  “Dude, we should totally do it!”  “Hell yeah, dude.  It’s ON!”

Public Health:  Dr. Elena Bodnar, with Raphael Lee and Sandra Marijan, got this award for inventing a brassiere that quickly converts to a pair of gas masks.  In a matter of seconds, presumably, one can wriggle out of her bra, slap a cup over her own face and offer the other cup to an innocent bystander.  There’s no word how the bra-slash-facemask looks under a cashmere sweater, but Dr. Bodnar has obtained a U.S. patent for it.  Granted on August 14, 2007, Patent #7255627 is described in Patent Office records as “Garment Device Convertible to One or More Facemasks”.

There’s real potential here, I believe; with minor modifications it can probably be put to other uses.  Perhaps one day, airline flight attendants will be announcing during the safety briefing, “In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, a brassiere will drop from the overhead compartment.”

According to the Annals of Improbable Research, the Ig Nobel Prizes “honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.”  They’re right:  they made me laugh, and then they made me think… about laughing some more.