Sunday, 17 February 2013

Why You Should Avoid Penguin Poo and Country Music

by George Chapman

As a budding medic, one of my greatest career aspirations (apart from getting through the next few months of the International Baccalaureate) is to contribute ground-breaking and useful research to the scientific community.
As we all know, the ultimate recognition for such research is the Nobel Prize, awarded annually for the publication of greatest consequence in each subject area during the preceding twelve months. However, I hasten to argue that the true value of research lies not in its deep humanitarian benefit (to alleviate global hunger, suffering and whatever else), but in the amusement/bemusement it provides.
So, right on cue, let me introduce you to the Ig Nobel Prizes – prizes awarded for the least conventionally useful papers published in each area of research. Here are some of the funnier examples I stumbled across this evening:

1.   “Effects of Backward Speech and Speaker Variability in Language Discrimination by Rats” was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in January 2005 and was subsequently named as winner of the Ig Nobel Prize for Linguistics in 2007. This paper was one of several in a session of research investigating similarities between human and other mammalian infants in order to determine the evolutionary origins of speech. Somewhat less impressively, this particular study concluded that the rats were unable to differentiate between Dutch and Japanese when each language was spoken backwards. A particularly useful nugget of information, don’t you think?

2.   The winner of the 2004 Ig Nobel Prize for Medicine was entitled the self explanatory “Effect of Country Music on Suicide”. If you, like me, always suspected that there was something profoundly dodgy about Billy Ray Cyrus (although you could never quite put your finger on it) – now you know…

3.   Finally (and most absurd), “Pressures Produced When Penguins Poo – Calculations on Avian Defaecation” is the 2005 winner in the distinguished field of Fluid Dynamics. As the diagram below demonstrates, one critical outcome of the researchers’ trip to Antarctica is the calculation that penguins’ ‘faecal material’ may be expelled over distance of up to 40cm.       In light of this, I think it’s safe to say that half-a-metre is the shortest distance you’d catch between   me and one of these birds (if I ever happen to actually find myself in the polar regions of the globe, that is).

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