By Mordechai Schmutter
Ever since I started writing about the Ig Nobel Prizes (about six weeks into my first year, just as I ran out of topics), people have been wondering if these studies were useful in any way.
I don’t blame them. The Ig Nobel Prizes, after all, are an American spoof of the Nobel Prizes, and are given to people whose work “first makes you laugh, then makes you think.” But it’s all real work.
They never have these questions about the Nobel Prize, because with the Nobel Prize, you can tell on your own how the research is useful. For example, in 2012, the chemistry prize went to Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka for studies of G-protein coupled receptors. So in that case, we can easily say, “Yeah, that research would be useful. You know, because who else is going to study G-protein coupled receptors? Better them than us.”
But it turns out the Ig Nobel Prize research has practical applications too. You just have to think about it for a second.
For example, last year, the prize for safety engineering went to the late Gustano Pizzo for inventing an electromechanical system to trap airplane hijackers.
The system, which I am totally not making up, has multiple steps:
STEP 1: The hijacker is dropped through a trap door in the floor behind the cockpit.
STEP 2: He lands in a net.
STEP 3: Once he’s trapped, a bomb bay door opens under him.
STEP 4: He then screams all the way to the ground, with the aid of a parachute attached to the net, where—
STEP 5: The cops, having been alerted by radio, “await his arrival.”
All that’s missing is the pit of alligators. But it definitely sounds a lot better than whatever TSA is doing right now.
Application: The device was actually patented in 1972, and I’m sure you’re all wondering, why on earth is not every plane equipped with this hilarious anti-hijacking device?
My guess is there may have been a few hiccups:
First of all, I can’t see the police getting there in time. They’re definitely not “awaiting his arrival.” And what if he drops over the ocean? And is the parachute necessary? Or is it just in case someone else accidentally falls through the trap door by mistake? (“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your flight attendant speaking. There’s nothing to worry about—we’re just experiencing a little light turbulence because our pilot has fallen out of the plane.”) Also, how do they get the hijacker to stand right over the trap door? Do they try to lure him there?
“Sir, please stand on the X.”
“I don’t wanna stand on the X. I have a gun. You stand on the X.”
And isn’t there usually more than one hijacker? How do you get the second guy to stand on the X right after he’s seen what happened to the first guy?
Sadly, Mr. Pizzo isn’t around for us to ask him any of these questions, because he’s dead. Perhaps this is how.
The 2013 Ig Nobel Prize for Peace went to the president! No, not our president, obviously. It went to the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, for making it illegal to clap your hands in public.
I don’t know what “public” means. Does anyone applaud when no one’s around?
Lukashenko is the dictator of Belarus, and he’s not very popular, despite that he’s been happily oppressing people since 1994 and wins every election with a 90% majority, which is strange, because we have freedom here, and you can’t get 90% of people to agree on anything.
So the Belarussians (Belarooskies?) want to protest this dictator, but unfortunately, it’s illegal to stage a protest without a permit, and good luck getting one of those. But they have to do something, because all signs suggest things are going to get worse.
Well, not literally all signs. They’re not allowed to use signs.
So they started finding loopholes. For example, there was a law against protesting, but there was no law that they couldn’t just stand still and not protest. So that became the protest.
But the most popular form of protest—the one which got the largest amount of applause—was clapping.
At first, Lukashenko didn’t get it. He’d finish a speech, and everyone would clap, and he’d think, “Hey, I’m doing pretty well here!” Then he found out what it meant.
So he made clapping illegal. And now, when they announce his name before a speech, you can’t clap either. What do you do? Just stand there in awkward silence and let the crickets do all the work?
Maybe people can stand up for him, like we do when they announce rabbanim, right? Wrong. Because standing still as a crowd and not doing anything is illegal too.
That’s pretty scary. If you can arrest people for just standing around, most of us would be arrested, especially at weddings.
Application: This is really a good thing to know if you ever find yourself in Belarus for whatever reason, such as that you’ve been dropped out of a plane.
The prize for probability went to a bunch of scientists in Scotland for their study on, as usual, cows. But they weren’t just wasting their time. They actually made two discoveries:
First, they discovered that the longer a cow lies down, the more likely it is to get up. That seems pretty obvious, right?
Wrong. Because discovery #2 was that once a cow stands up, you cannot easily predict when it will lie down again. It could stand for hours.
This is the opposite of us. The longer we’re standing, the more likely we are to sit down, but once we sit, there’s no telling when we’re going to get up. Arguably, the longer we sit, the less likely it is that we’ll get up at all, especially if our legs fall asleep.
The most likely reason for the difference is that the default position for cows is standing up. Cows start walking the day they’re born. Get it together, human babies.
“We all expected that these cows would be more motivated to lie down the longer they’d been standing,” one of the researchers said. “But they never did what we expected them to do. It was quite interesting.”
“How was work today?”
“You know that cow that was supposed to sit down? Well, it didn’t.”
“Whoa! What did you do?”
“I had to sit down.”
Researchers were able to monitor the cows by fitting them with pedometers. My wife fitted me with one of those when she wanted to monitor how many steps I took every day. I don’t remember what happened to the pedometer. I think it died of boredom.
Application: Sometimes you need to predict when cows will stand up, because you want to give a speech, and clapping is illegal.
The prize for physics went to five researchers in Italy “for discovering that some people would be physically capable of running across the surface of a pond—if those people and that pond were on the moon.”
Because going to the moon isn’t thrilling enough. Once you’re there, you want to run on water.
Application: Maybe what happened was that scientists were wondering—can people run across the Atlantic?
Probably not. I think if the Mitzriyim in the Yam Suf showed us anything, it’s that people cannot run across the surface of the water.
But it’s not inconceivable. Basilisk lizards can run across a river on their hind legs. It’s the cutest thing. Unless you’re right there, and it’s charging toward you. So the question is, can humans do it too? After a lot of trial and error (mostly error) and extended experiments in which they suspended people over wading pools and told them to run in place, they determined that the answer is: Yes; people can run on water, if:
(a) we had 16 times the amount of leg muscles or weigh significantly less than we do, especially if our days involve sitting for long periods where it’s anyone’s guess when and if we’ll get up; or
(b) our feet were better shaped for the job, such as that we were wearing flippers, which are hard to run in.
But then they determined that if we went somewhere with significantly less gravity, such as the moon, and wore small flippers, which are not as hard to run in, we can probably do it.
Application: This would be good to know if you’ve just parachuted down into an ocean, after an incredible misunderstanding in which you couldn’t find directions to the airplane bathroom, and you find the cops bearing down on you in a boat.
Don’t just stand there. Run!
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of four books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com.
By Mordechai Schmutter