The Nobel laureates have left Allahabad. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has launched INSPIRE (Innovation of Science Pursuit for Inspired Research) to award scholarships to students inclined towards science in the hope that someday someone will win another science Nobel for India. All very well, but what about the Ig Nobels, I say. Read on.
Side effects: Contraceptive pills could affect the earnings of women in certain professions. Paul O’Driscoll / Bloomberg
Humour is a preoccupation of mine mostly because it is so hard to get right. It is cultural—Indians may love Russell Peters but the Japanese may not have a clue as to why he is so funny. It is situational—the same lines that provoke hysterical laughter in one group at a certain time might fall flat in another place and time. Humour is linked at the waist with comic timing: The punch line can be superb but the laughter it evokes will depend on hair-breadth delivery timing. Humour is varied—there is slapstick, pun, wit, irony, deadpan, all of which influence the joke. And lastly, humour depends on subject matter. There are some subjects, such as lawyers, who lend themselves to jokes and others, say science, that don’t. Or so you think.
Every now and then, when I want a laugh, I go to a website called the Annals of Improbable Research. Let me say this unequivocally and this, ladies and gentlemen, is the one-line takeaway from this column: You have got to see this webzine. If you have any interest in science and even if you don’t, you have got to dip into this site periodically if only to see how endlessly creative science can be. Where else can you read about research on the “Termination of intractable hiccups with digital rectal massage”, or “Ovulatory cycle effects on tip earnings by lap dancers: economic evidence for human estrus?”
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The second topic incidentally won the 2008 Ig Nobel Prize for Economics. The Ig Nobels, as their name suggests, are ignoble, i.e., not as noble as the original Nobels. Handed out annually since 1991 by the Annals of Improbable Research, their goal is to make you laugh at first and then think. Every year, some 5,000 applicants vie for the Ig Nobels. A few are shortlisted and finally, a committee that includes bona fide Nobel laureates chooses the Ig Nobels for physics, chemistry, peace, economics—pretty much every area that is covered by the Nobels and then some, such as nutrition and archeology.
The 2008 physics Ig Nobel went to two gentlemen who mathematically proved that heaps of string or ribbons will spontaneously knot themselves up. Titled “Spontaneous Knotting of an Agitated String”, it sounds like the beginning of a wonderful, if manic, poem, but it is in fact an analysis of the Jones Polynomials and Mobius energy of self-perpetrating knots. The biology Ig Nobel went to the topic: “A comparison of jump performances of the dog flea, Ctenocephalides canis (Curtis, 1826) and the cat flea, Ctenocephalides felis felis”. Turns out that the cat flea—the felis felis—can jump higher than the dog flea—the canis—by a few centimetres. The topic of the chemistry Ig Nobel might interest you gentlemen. It researches the effect of Coca-Cola on sperm motility and awards two groups of researchers who got exactly opposite results. One group, based in the US, says that Coca-Cola is a spermicide and another Taiwan-based research group says that it is not.
Since Mint is a business paper, I will pay specific attention to the economics Ig Nobel. Quoting verbatim is a lazy journalist’s tactic but this abstract is too good not to do so. Therefore, forgive me, here is the abstract of this year’s Ig Nobel-winning economics research paper, as published in Science Direct, titled “Ovulatory cycle effects on tip earnings by lap dancers: economic evidence for human estrus?”
“Abstract: To see whether estrus was really “lost” during human evolution (as researchers often claim), we examined ovulatory cycle effects on tip earnings by professional lap dancers working in gentlemen's clubs. Eighteen dancers recorded their menstrual periods, work shifts, and tip earnings for 60 days on a study website. A mixed-model analysis of 296 work shifts (representing about 5,300 lap dances) showed an interaction between cycle phase and hormonal contraception use. Normally cycling participants earned about US $335 per 5-h shift during estrus, US $260 per shift during the luteal phase, and US $185 per shift during menstruation. By contrast, participants using contraceptive pills showed no estrous earnings peak. These results constitute the first direct economic evidence for the existence and importance of estrus in contemporary human females, in a real-world work setting. These results have clear implications for human evolution, sexuality, and economics.”
This paper is path-breaking (keep that grin in place, please) for several reasons. It proves that women in heat earn more money than women who don’t experience estrus because they are taking birth control pills. More important, it goes against common scientific wisdom which postulates that while mammals experience estrus (as witnessed in dogs and gorillas in heat), humans lost it during the course of evolution. In other words, we human-women experience menstrual cycles devoid of estrous—the “frenzied passion” that is at the Latin root of the word, oestrous. Some researchers say that the estrous cycle that animals experience is different from the human menstrual cycle. These lap dancers and their increased earnings during the peak of their estrus cycles have triumphantly proved that thesis wrong. Hence the Ig Nobel. And congratulations to Messrs. Miller, Tybura and Jordana of the University of New Mexico.
Science can be fun but it can—as the Ig Nobels prove—also be funny. Nothing, not even the menstrual cycles of lap dancers, is too humble or outlandish when it comes to scientific curiosity. There are literature Ig Nobels as well. The 2008 one was given to an essay titled You bastard, and the 2007 one was given to a lady who wrote about the difficulty alphabetizing index entries that began with “The”.
Shoba Narayan aspires to an Ig Nobel and is keeping track of yawns in the hope of coming up with a groundbreaking theory. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org