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Sigh-cology

By Mordechai Schmutter

Is science fair? Science isn’t fair. No matter how good you are at what you do, or how many discoveries you’ve made, or how long you’ve spent, say, observing the effects of dead laboratory mice on unsuspecting scientists, when it comes to the Nobel Prizes, you’re always going to be passed over for the guy who discovered yet an even smaller unit of matter than he did last year.

Okay, so scientists aren’t in it for the prizes. They’re in it to make the world a better place, right? But if you spend time researching, say, why people hiccup, who exactly is going to pay for that?

It’s all about grants. And grants are all about name recognition. And name recognition is all about how many awards you’ve won. And if your son, who you know cannot sit still for more than twelve seconds, can come home with a “Student of the Week” certificate toward the end of the year because the morah wants to give everyone a chance, then why can’t these scientists have a chance to win a prize?

Enter the Ig Nobel Prizes. The Ig Nobel Prizes were created to celebrate unique individuals who are the best in their fields, mostly because no one else will come into their fields with them. According to the people that host the awards ceremony, the Ig Nobels are given for research that “first makes people laugh, then makes them think.” Sort of like that time Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize.

And some people won Ig Nobel Prizes for not managing to do anything. For example, the prize for physiology went to a bunch of scientists in England for their study and the subsequent paper they wrote, titled, “No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise.”

No evidence. Wow. So now they’re exactly where the rest of us were, as far as evidence. It’s really more like a Guinness World Record, isn’t it? “Longest amount of time spent observing tortoises not yawn.” And then they wrote an eight-page paper on it, which I tried to read. Talk about contagious yawning.

How do you get that first turtle to yawn, anyway? Especially if they’re not contagious yawners. Do all the scientists stand around yawning and see if it follows suit?

Scientist #1: Yawn

Scientist #2: Yawn

Scientist #3: Yawn

Scientist #4: Yawn

Tortoise: “What do they want from me?”

It turns out that they spent six months teaching a single tortoise, named Alexandra, to yawn on command. Then they spent another few months commanding Alexandra to yawn and seeing if her friends would yawn as well.

Alexandra: Yawn

Scientist #1: Yawn

Scientist #2: “The others aren’t yawning. Yawn”

Scientist #3: “I know. Yawn. But the paper is due soon, and we have no evidence either way.”

Scientist #4: “Just write it. Yawn. I want to go to bed.”

But they weren’t the only people who won for not managing to do anything. The prize for mathematics went to Dorothy Martin, Pat Robertson, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, Credonia Mwerinde, Harold Camping, and Harold Camping again, all of whom went through major mathematical calculations and figured out that the world is definitely, definitely, no doubt going to end in 1954, 1982, 1990, 1992, 1994, 1999, and 2011, respectively. Though I don’t know why they bothered. Is life so boring that you’re staring at the clock, like a kid at school, wondering, “When is it going to end already?”

So they won the mathematics award for “teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations,” or at least not saying it out loud until afterwards. What’s it going to help to tell everyone? Where are we going to go? I say, let us be surprised.

Anyway, none of them actually showed up to accept the award. But it’s not the end of the world.

The chemistry prize went to researchers in Japan “for determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi”—which are two words that you don’t want to hear in the same sentence—“to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency, and for applying this knowledge to invent the wasabi alarm.”

In other words, they’re waking people up with tear gas. They should totally put this in the vents of yeshiva dorms to wake everyone for Shacharis.

Okay, it’s not technically a sleep alarm. It’s more like a smoke alarm—the kind that goes off when you’re cooking, or at least when I’m cooking, and you have to wave a broom around until the noise stops. This one would just spray wasabi over whatever you were cooking.

It was really invented for the hearing-impaired who wouldn’t wake up for regular fire alarms, although it can also be used for people who, when they’re sleeping, become hearing-impaired. The team conducted tests wherein they had 14 people go to sleep, and then sprayed various smells into the rooms to see how long it would take until everybody woke up. They went through over 100 different smells before someone thought of wasabi. I don’t know how they got 14 test subjects to fall asleep in a room with several video cameras over 100 times. Maybe they sent Alexandra in to yawn at them.

It turned out that when exposed to the smell of wasabi, people woke up within two minutes. Well, actually, 13 of them woke up. The 14th had a stuffed nose. So, yeah, this is designed for the hearing-impaired, but if you’re hearing-impaired and have a stuffed nose, you’re out of luck. Maybe they should come up with a mattress that ejects you through the ceiling.

The prize for public safety went to John Senders of the University of Toronto, for conducting a series of “safety” experiments in which a person drives an automobile on a major highway while a visor repeatedly flaps down over his face, blinding him. (“Hey! I had a car like that once!”) Most people would have let it flap maybe three times, and then ripped it out and thrown it out the window. I have a hard enough time with windshield wipers.

The experiment was designed to see if a person can drive based on his last visual memory of where the other cars were. John conducted this experiment in the ’60s, but it’s finally prevalent today, what with people texting in the car based on their memory of where the cars in front of them were when they started composing the text.

Finally, the prize for psychology went to Karl Halvor Teigen of Norway for his research into why people sigh. (Okay, 10 points if you just sighed, 20 if you sighed and yawned to see if you could hear the difference.) Karl says that he doesn’t know what this research will actually accomplish. He just did some research into things that no one’s done research into yet, and he came up with “sighing.”

“So what are you going to research?” his wife asked. Because the last time she asked him, he said he was doing research into things that no one’s done research into.

“Sighing,” he said.

And she sighed.

“Why are you sighing?” he asked. “I need to know, for my research.”

But she wouldn’t tell him either.

It’s hard to study sighing, though. You can’t sit people down and tell them to sigh. That’s not going to help you find out why they’re doing it.

“There. Just then. Why did you sigh?

“Because you told me to.”

He decided to give his test subjects really hard puzzles to solve—ones that looked easy but were actually impossible. And then he took note of when people sighed. Basically, he says, you sigh when you had a plan but are now discarding it to make room for a new one. A sigh of relief is when you let out your backup contingency plan, and your wife sighs because she had this whole plan of marrying an adult, and now she needs to make do.

Next he’s going to study why people clear their throats. v

Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of three 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.

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Posted by on November 8, 2012. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.