It takes all sorts

A study showing that nearly all mammals take the same amount of time to urinate in proportion to their bladder capacity has been awarded an Ig Nobel prize.

The spoof Nobel Prizes for “improbable research” are in their 25th year. Run by the science humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research, the prizes “celebrate the unusual, honour the imaginative and are intended to spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.”

The name is a play on the words ignoble (base, low, or mean) and Nobel Prize. The first Ig Nobels were created in 1991 by Marc Abrahams, editor and co-founder of the Annals and master of ceremonies at award-givings. Ten Ig Nobel Prizes are presented each year, recognizing genuine achievements.

This year, a prize was given to a study measuring the pain of bee stings on different parts of the body. The researcher applied stings to parts of his own anatomy, ranging from the skull, the middle toe and upper arm to the penis shaft, upper lip and nostril. A thought experiment might have produced the same result.

Speed-bumpsA group from the UK also got a prize for testing whether pain experienced when driving over speed bumps can help diagnose appendicitis. In a formal study of 101 patients, 33 of 34 people with appendicitis reported pain. It seems that the 34th said nothing since he was already dead.

Other prizes this year included one for literature: the discovery that the word “Huh?” (or its equivalent) seems to exist in every human language. There is speculation that the word is Neanderthal in origin, expressing surprise that anyone would be foolish enough to believe anything Donald Trump says.

The prize for economics went to a study of the Bangkok Metropolitan Police (Thailand) which offered to pay policemen extra cash if they refused to take bribes. Allegedly, the Thai government has just doubled its spending on the police force.

In mathematics the award went to researchers trying to discover how Moulay Ismael the Bloodthirsty, Emperor of Morocco, during the years 1697 to 1727 managed to father 867 children. The researchers have since taken a sex education course.

Recipients of the awards seem delighted to be publicly lauded/humiliated in this way. Yet there is a serious question to ask about the waste of money involved in such research. Surely it could be better spent on something else?

Come to think of it, researching the money spent on improbable research sounds like a good topic for a PhD thesis. I wonder who might fund it?

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