Who says science can’t serve up some holiday cheer? As 2009 draws to a close, I’d like to share some of the studies I failed to mention during this passing year, and pay tribute to some outstandingly ridiculous achievements in food, health and safety.
The food and health related Ig Nobel prizes for 2009
The Ig Nobel awards are a parody of the Nobel Prizes, and have been awarded each fall for the past 19 years for funny, absurd or unexpected (but all too real and methodically correct) scientific research in a ceremony attended by real Nobel laureates at Harvard University.
Of course, traditions are part of the ceremony, including the famous prompt that cuts grateful winners’ lengthy acceptance speeches in a high-pitched girls’ voice with "Please stop. I'm bored!" and the closing words, "If you didn't win a prize — and especially if you did — better luck next year!"
Not to be missed, there were some really funny Ig Nobel Prizes awarded this year for food and health research:
• The Veterinary Medicine Prize was awarded to Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson of Newcastle University, England, for their research showing that cows that have names give more milk than cows that are nameless. This is a study that will probably interest many people in the sustainable agriculture movement, not to mention those who care about animal welfare. Apparently, this study joins others showing that fear of humans affects cattle’s productivity. Not so surprisingly, among the 516 dairy farmers surveyed, 90 percent thought cows had feelings, 78 percent thought cows were intelligent, and on farms where cows were called by name, milk yield was 258 liters higher than on farms where cows had no individual identity.
• The Ig Nobel Peace Prize went to a Swiss group that set out to test whether it’s better to be smashed over the head with a full bottle of beer or with an empty one. The sensible answer would be that it’s better to avoid both (either one can fracture a human skull), but to answer this most important question the researchers tested the fracture properties of full and empty bottles from a drop-tower, and determined that the empty bottle has a higher impact, leading to the satisfying conclusion that you can enjoy your beer, and have a deadly instrument too.
• The Biology Prize was given to a Japanese group for showing that kitchen trash can be reduced more than 90 percent in mass by using bacteria extracted from the feces of giant pandas.
• The Public Health Prize was given for a patent, registered by Elena N. Bodnar, Raphael C. Lee and Sandra Marijan of Chicago, for a bra that in case of emergency converts into not one but two protective face masks. You’ll always want a well-endowed woman by your side—with a cup size matched to the size of your nose—in case disaster strikes!
• The Medicine Prize was given to Donald Unger for investigating whether cracking knuckles causes arthritis—as his mom, aunts and mother-in-law warned. Donald diligently cracked the knuckles of his left hand but never cracked the knuckles of his right hand every day for more than sixty years. He found no evidence that it caused arthritis. Nothing happened. Unger prides himself for conducting the study entirely at his own expense, without grants from any governmental or pharmaceutical company. (I wonder if anyone will try to confirm these results with a slightly larger group and some randomization. And no, this doesn’t mean you can pop your knuckles—moms, aunts and mothers-in-law still find it annoying.)
The Ig Nobel’s tag line is “Research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.” I think it does just that; can’t wait to see 2010’s winners.
The 2009 Darwin Awards
I’m not really sure if the macabre and sublimely idiotic deaths by stupidity that are “celebrated” through the Darwin Awards are humorous or just sad.
This prize is named after Charles Darwin and given to people who "do a service to humanity by removing themselves from the gene pool" (i.e. they lose the ability to reproduce, either by death or by sterilization, in a especially foolish fashion). You can judge for yourself. The Darwin Awards website is run by Wendy Northcutt, who tries to verify every story (while many of the circulating email Darwin Award stories apparently aren’t true).
In many ways I prefer the Honorable Mentions, given to stupid acts that almost rendered the participant worthy of the award, but somehow, luckily, spared their life. I believe in second chances and that everyone has, at some point, done something incredibly stupid.
As you might imagine, some of these mishaps happen in the kitchen, and many involve fire, electricity and heat.
Here’s one Honorable Mention Darwin Award for 2009 to warm your heart:
"(February 2009, Sweden) Welcome to Sweden. Home of Swedish massage, Swedish cuckoos, and one Swedish meatball who decided to warm himself in an industrial- strength oven. The incident took place in freezing February at a facility operated by a maker of kitchen cabinets and fixtures (Ballingsl'v). The heating system in the loading area had ceased to function, leaving a shivering truck driver defenseless against the frigid winter. Looking to escape the cold, this driver wandered toward the shrink-wrap oven and asked the operator if he could take a spin on the conveyor belt to get warm.
Although the driver was freezing his umlaut off, the operator hard-heartedly denied the man's request. Undaunted, the driver waited until no one was looking and managed to hoist himself onto the conveyor belt for a blissful toasty ride. But all those Swedish meatballs took their toll. The massive (cough) trucker was too heavy for the belt and the motor shut down, leaving him stuck in the 360-degree oven.
Luckily, the oven operator noticed the stoppage and was able to drag the man out of the searing heat before he sustained serious injuries—except, perhaps, an industrial-strength tan. Following the incident, Sweden's Work Environment Authority offered the oven operator counseling to work through the shock he suffered, and intends to carry out a risk assessment of surveillance around the shrink ovens. Apparently they are too tempting to leave unguarded.”
Silliest diet for 2009
This one’s never easy. Competition among fad diets is tough; I’m truly astounded by the food regimens people impose on themselves and by the outrageous claims diet marketers make. But the Primal Diet is—to me—a clear winner for sheer craziness.
The premise: Return to the diet of our cave-dwelling ancestors, before they mastered the practice of taming the power of fire.
Founder: Aajonus Vonderplanitz
The recipe: An all-raw eating plan consisting of raw meat, eggs and dairy. Advanced adopters go for “high meat” or animal flesh that has “aged” and decomposed. The diet is 95 percent raw meat, and the rest is made up with vegetable juices and low-carb fruits, such as avocados and coconut. There’s not much need for recipes as all food is raw, though maybe a light touch of a marinade adds a little extra something.
The promise: A cure for everything, including advanced cancer, while inspiring a natural high, mental clarity and a sense of well-being.
If this diet doesn’t actually prolong life, it’s sure to make life seem much longer.
Warning: Don’t try this at home! You’re pretty much guaranteed to be eating many harmful bacteria.
Silliest kitchen gadgets for 2009
The British Landfill Prize compiled a top-ten list of the most ridiculously unnecessary and wasteful products of the year. Not surprisingly, kitchen gadgets are disproportionately represented.
Among the top prizes were:
A motorized ice-cream cone, for those too lazy to roll the cone around for an even lick. Dishwasher safe.
A motorized fork, which effortlessly twirls pasta towards the mouth.
I’d like to add to these the French-Fry Holder. This is one of those how-did-we-live-without-it car devices that fits into the standard cup holder (of which most cars have a dozen of, enough to accommodate a five-course meal with drink pairings) and holds a French fries container and even has a small holder for ketchup. It’s the perfect way to encourage even more un-healthy eating!
I have a feeling we may have peaked in terms of wasteful consumerism for a while. The competition will hopefully grow easier next year; we may even miss some of these excesses of the past.
Please feel free to share your silly findings for 2009. I plan to make this a yearly tradition, and I’ll be looking ahead for what 2010 brings.