Female voice: This podcast is sponsored by Waste Management. From everyday collection…
Male voice: …to environmental protection, think green, think waste management. To learn more, visit www.wm.com/thinkgreen
Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting October 10th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast: Its science prize season and so with the Nobel Prize is being awarded this week, we'll talk about the Ig Nobel Prize and the Nobel Prizes. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Marc Abrahams is the man behind the Ig Nobel Prizes. To find out more about the prizes in this year's crop of "winners"—I said crop—I called Marc in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Steve: Hi Marc, How are you?
Abrahams: Top of the, whatever time of day it is that we are recording this Steve.
Steve: Well, it is the morning on Monday, the 8th and the real Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine has just been awarded, but let's talk about the Ig Nobel Prizes; they are your baby. And now how long have you been doing this?
Abrahams: We just had the 17th first annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, which translates to 17 years.
Steve: It used to be that when people—well why don't you explain what the Ig Nobel's are first of all for anybody who might not know.
Abrahams: Okay! And I'll begin by saying it took us about 10 years to figure out a simple phrase that described it accurately and that phrase is, there are prizes for things that first make people laugh and then make them think and what people think, that's up to them. And we have a longer phrase we used beforehand that
it also had extra qualification, so life for us got much easier when we came up with this basic "things that make you laugh and make you think".
Steve: So, (laughs) well, give me at least one of the previous qualifications.
Abrahams: We used to describe it… All right, well (laughs). At first this was the best we could come up with. We said it was "for prizes that cannot or should not be reproduced".
Steve: Right—should not be reproduced.
Abrahams: And then we would go onto explain that now that "cannot be reproduced" includes anything that has been done for the first time, if you are the first person to do it, no one else can legitimately claim that "firstness," so under that clause, almost everything in the world, as long as it was the first time it was done, could sneak in.
Steve: Right, so even though the research was reproducible, the being the first to do the research was not reproducible.
Steve: Now, it used to be that if you won because of this business that has since been removed from the description about, you know, maybe should not be reproduced, I think it used to be considered something of maybe a backhanded complement to win the Ig Nobel Prize. But now people actually show up from all over the world to accept their rewards.
Abrahams: And when they come to the ceremony, they do that at their own expense, since we have no money, and every year, we get seven, eight, nine of the ten winners, coming many of them from literally half way around the world.
Steve: Right, you had somebody come from Japan this year.
Abrahams: We had winners coming in from five continents all [told]
total including North America: We had somebody from Japan, someone from Australia, somebody from Argentina, somebody came in from England, and people came from elsewhere and (unclear 3:32)[there] are [a] couple d that we don't get in touch with who have already become so famous for whatever it was they did, that the Ig Nobel Prize could not conceivably effect them. For example, the Peace Prize winner this year. The Peace Prize this year went to the US Air Force Wright Laboratory for some work done in the early '70s; and what they did was begin the process of research and development on a chemical weapon—[a] so-called gay bomb that is intended to make enemy soldiers become sexually irresistible to each other.
Steve: And for some reason they didn't feel like showing up to accept that award.
Abrahams: Well, we couldn't quite determine who that "they" was. And we did talk with several people who worked there at the time, none of whom would admit [directly] to being the people on the project
directly, but we did learn pretty convincingly that this was quite real. What we also learned, what we were told anyway, is that after this was sent up the lines for funding—we know it reached the point at least were it was sent up the line and requested funding for this—but if it was given funding, we were told it would immediately have been stamped secret; and so there is no way we would know what happened to it. It's conceivable that its in use right now.
Steve: You know, the president of Iran was famously in New York last week and contended that they were no gay people in Iran, so if there is any reported gay activity in Iran that would be conclusive evidence that we had secretly released the gay bomb in that country.
Abrahams: Many interpretations are possible.
Steve: Now you have actual Nobel Laureates who are regular cast of characters in the ceremony.
Abrahams: We have regulars and we have irregulars, you know, the part of the ceremony happens 10 times, when we announce the winners. The winners are strictly held secrets up until that moment and—their identity is anyway—and the winner stands up and [the] Nobel Laureate stands up and they meet at the center of the stage and they look each other in the eye and shake hands and neither one can quite believe it, but both of them seem pretty pleased to be there. So, we have five Nobel laureates and we had seven of the 10 winners, the Ig Nobel winners this year, and the eighth one sent in an acceptance speech over videotape. There were some nice moments. One was the winners of the Medicine prize that came, it's Dr. Brian Witcombe from Gloucester in the UK and Dan Meyer from Antioch, Tennessee. They wrote together a report published in the British Medical Journal. Their report was called "Sword Swallowing and its Side Effects". So, Brian Witcombe is a doctor, Dan Meyer is the head of an International Association of Sword Swallowers. They had one minute to do their acceptance speech. So, Dr. Witcombe gave some of the technical aspects of what happens when people swallow swords and then Dan Meyer stepped up, pulled out a sword, plunged it down his throat, [and] took a bow with the sword in his throat. Dr. Witcombe removed the sword and the five Nobel Laureates who were sitting two feet behind them seemed rather surprised. It appears none of them had ever quite seen anything like this.
Steve: Well, you know, I am particularly familiar with the sword swallowing research because I wrote that up for Scientific American last spring or late last winter, and I'll give you folks out there listening, a link to that story at the end of this interview.
Abrahams: In that report, and with many of the Ig Nobel reports, the citation is just the beginning of the story. In the study that won the prize, they mentioned a discovery they made. People had believed that there was some relationship between how long a sword it is possible for you to swallow and how tall you are, but it turns out there is no connection at all. They found very short people who were able to swallow very long swords and very tall people who never manage to swallow anything other than a stubbing little thing.
Steve: And that finding of course is what makes this research so important.
Abrahams: Could look at it that way.
Steve: Back to your real Nobel Laureates.
You have Dudley Herschbach has been there many times. Chemistry Nobel Laureate, Bill Lipscomb still takes part in the ceremony. Does he still [play] the clarinet in your band?
Abrahams: No. Bill Lipscomb is now 88 years old. His fingers, the last few years, have not been as reliably supple as possible, so he doesn't play the clarinet any more, but he is still there.
Steve: Well, I just I want everybody to know that William Lipscomb, who won the Chemistry Nobel Prize in 1976, is a terrific clarinetist, or was, so he should get some extra credit for that, too.
Abrahams: Yeah! He still plays, but not as often as he used to, and this year Bob Laughlin from Stanford, who won the Nobel Physics Prize a few years ago, was at the Ig for the first time and he was this year's prize in the "Win a Date with the Nobel Laureate" contest.
Steve: And do you have any idea what the winner did with him?
Abrahams: We have a sort of "don't ask don't tell" policy.
Steve: And that's probably a good idea. So, lets talk about, give me your top few awards. I see, you gave one to Brian Wansink, who we've had on the podcast.
Abrahams: Yeah! He won for inventing the bottomless bowl of soup and using it to explore the bottomless appetite of human beings. And during the entire ceremony we had a man on stage eating from a bottomless bowl of soup. The audience didn't fully appreciate why until we announced the prize to Brian Wansink.
Steve: And Brian Wansink studies the psychological aspects of how much we eat and whether there are visual cues like a bottomless bowl of soup would presumably have you eating more because you don't realize that you've made it through a particular portion.
Abrahams: Oh! Not presumably. They tested it on I think something like
a 160 people all together, and they only found two people who stopped eating the soup before they came out and told them to stop.
Abrahams: And those two turned out to be special cases. One of them had dropped something and in picking it up noticed this machinery underneath and the other was a similar kind of thing, so in essence, he has never found anybody who would stop eating soup before they burst or before somebody came and stopped them.
Steve: Why don't you talk about the Aviation Prize?
Abrahams: No reason not to. It went to three scientists in Argentina, one of them Diego Golombek flew up from Argentina to accept the prize. They won for their discovery that Viagra aids jet lag recovery in hamsters.
Steve: And you know we actually covered this story on the daily Scientific American podcast, 60-Second Science. Why don't we take a listen to our coverage of that.
60-Second Science: This is Scientific American's 60-Second Science. I am Karen Hopkin; this will just take a minute.
Scientists in Argentina have found that hamsters recover more quickly from jet lag when they take a drug before the flight, Viagra. Okay, there may be a lot of things you are wondering right now, like is jet lag a big problem for hamsters or where are these hamsters going with their exercise wheels and erectile dysfunction prescriptions? Here's what we know: Jet lag happens when your body clock doesn't agree with the clock on the wall, because you've crossed a couple of time zones. The mismatch can leave you groggy and disoriented and even disrupt your sleep cycles until you are able to reset your internal timepiece. Well, the same thing happen
s[ed] to hamsters when scientists booked them on the red eye from Buenos Aires to Bucharest— with[or the] laboratory equivalent—turning on the lights six hours early. It then takes the [gets] jet lag: It was [took a] while to figure [out] when to start running in their exercise wheels, which they usually do after dark. What the Argentinean researchers found is that hamsters that were given Viagra the night before the time change recovered faster than hamsters that do it without the drug. Whether similar treatment would provide relief to weary world travelers is an experiment that's probably been inadvertently done, but not reported.
Abrahams: At the lectures two days after the awarding of the prizes, somebody asked Diego Golombek about the hamsters, and what other effects they were showing from taking the Viagra, and he said that they had pretty carefully calibrated it so that the known side effects didn't happen.
Steve: I see. So, what—they used female hamsters?
Abrahams: You know, nobody asked him directly. I wish you had been there (laughs); and they used a very low dose of it.
tell us let's move along to the linguistics prize. This one—well, why don't you describe what the prize went to and then I'll ask you.
Abrahams: Yeah! This is a team that did the work at the University of Barcelona and one of the three, Juan Manuel Toro is originally a Colombian citizen and he is now working at a lab in Italy, so three nations were represented here. What they did was show that rats sometimes cannot tell the difference between a person speaking Japanese backwards and a person speaking Dutch backwards.
Steve: Why are we trying to see whether rats can distinguish various languages when they are spoken backwards?
Abrahams: In your question, did you say we?
Steve: We being, you know, we humans.
Abrahams: Okay! Who collectively did the experiment! There were some experiments done by other people, in which these people trained rats to tell the difference reliably between somebody who is speaking Japanese and somebody who is speaking Dutch, so this new experiment took that [a] step further. It was exposing the rats to somebody speaking Japanese backwards and Dutch backwards; now I expect that there is a chance you are going say, well why did that first set of experiments get done?
Steve: Yeah! That's a very good chance, but let's move right to the second set; and so what's the backwards part, why?
Abrahams: They knew that rats like humans can, whether they speak these languages or not—and I think in the case of most of the rats, it was not—but whether they do or not, they can still tell the difference. They hear somebody speaking one language, they can tell it's not the other; and they knew that humans have a tough time if the languages are being spoken backwards and so they wondered whether the brains of rats work in a way similar or at least the result of their working is similar to the result of the working of brains of human beings. Am I being too complicated and round about it?
Steve: Well, I'm just wondering are we going to try to institute some kind of a secret plan among longshoremen to speak their languages backwards so that the rats aboard ships don't figure, "Oh! I'm in Amsterdam, gonna have really good time here."
Abrahams: You've expressed this again in terms of we.
Steve: I'm anthropomorphizing my fellow humans (laughs), I guess.
Abrahams: I'd say you are also conflating individuals and groups.
Abrahams: There is a lot going on here.
Steve: Well, by "we", you know, I was being [a] human being, asking, "Why do we human beings want to perform this particular bit of research?"
Abrahams: Again, I'm sorry you are tempting me with so many questions. It's not your intention. (laughs) Let me reduce it to saying it's complicated.
Steve: Yes. It is indeed complicated. And speaking of…
Abrahams: And possibly intriguing…
Abrahams: And maybe even intriguingly complicated.
Steve: Maybe it'll come up in a some kind of a Disney cartoon that features rats as the heroes, as they have to save each other by figuring out whether the spoken language that they are hearing backwards is one or the other. So let's talk briefly about the economics prize.
Abrahams: The Ig Nobel Economics Prize this year went to a man named Kuo-Cheng Hsieh from Taiwan, who patented a device in year 2001 that catches bank robbers by dropping a net over them. We had had people in Taiwan looking for this gentleman because we wanted to invite him to the ceremony and this was going on for quite a while and no one could find him. He had moved from his old address. Nobody in the neighborhood even knew his name anymore, and we included him in the announcement and the very next day, we got an excited e-mail from a newspaper in Taiwan that they had published an account of the said Ig Nobel prizes featuring the local Taiwanese winner and some friends of his read this news paper account and got in touch with him. He is alive and he apparently is pretty pleased that he has won an Ig Nobel Prize.
The [That's the] only other fact we know about him so far, we are [have] not yet been in direct touch. The only fact we know about him so far is that he now runs a security company.
Steve: Okay! (laughs)
Abrahams: The fear had been that somebody who had this thing for us to consider, is the fear had been that…
Steve: One of his experiments went wrong and he was…
Steve: …and he was trapped in the basement of his house under a net since 2001.
Abrahams: Exactly, exactly! But—and maybe that did happen—but if so, he did manage to escape.
Steve: So Marc, where can people go to get the complete list of winners and all the previous winners?
Abrahams: Oh Steve! You can go to our Web site: improbable.com has list of all the winners from the beginning of time.
Steve: Very good, thanks Marc. And we look forward to the 18th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony next year.
Abrahams: Thank you Steve, and avoid jet lag.
Steve: Ig Nobel Laureate Brian Wansink appeared on the June 20th episode of Science Talk. You can get to it at www.SciAm.com/podcast. And my coverage of the science of sword swallowing was in the March issue of Scientific American, March 2007, just go to www.tinyurl.com/3bblmt; the "lmt," of course, [is] for lettuce, mutton and tomatoes. Of course, the real Nobel Prizes in science were awarded this week. We've had breaking coverage of the Nobels everyday this week on the daily Scientific American podcast 60-Second Science. If you miss those, here they are:
60-Second Science: The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was announced early October 8th. The winners were Mario Capecchi of the University of Utah, Martin Evans of Cardiff University and Oliver Smithies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They won for their discoveries leading to gene targeting in mice. Gene targeting allows researchers to inactivate individual genes; by the gene's absence, its true function is often revealed. Numerous genes involved in health and disease have been found using gene targeting and researchers can knock out specific genes to create mouse models of human diseases, including diabetes and cancer. More than 500 such mouse models have been created. Capecchi discovered genes crucial for mammalian organ development and the body plan in general; that work has revealed the causes of several birth defects. Evans developed models for cystic fibrosis and Smithies created mouse models for hypertension and atherosclerosis. To read a Scientific American magazine profile of Nobel Laureate Mario Capecchi go to www.tinyurl.com/26z8wv.
60-Second Science: The 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded October 9th to Albert Fert of France and Germany's Peter Gruenberg for their discovery of a new physical effect called Giant Magneto Resistance, or GMR. They independently found that, under the right conditions, weak magnetic changes could cause big differences in electrical resistance; that phenomenon made it possible to store vast amounts of data on ever smaller hard drives. The info on a hard drive is stored in tiny areas magnetized in different directions. To get more and more info packed onto a disc, the magnetic changes between sections have to be very small. But a readout head based on GMR can convert tiny magnetic differences into electrical resistance differences and thus into currents that correspond to data on the disc. GMR is thus considered an early example of nanotechnology. GMR led to spintronics, which combines the charge and magnetic properties of electrons, see the June 2002 Scientific American cover story on spintronics at www.SciAm.com.
60-Second Science: October 10th is the birthday of Germany's Gerhard Ertl who got the best present a scientist can receive. He was awarded the Nobel Prize. Ertl won the chemistry prize for his development of methods for studying how chemical reactions occur on surfaces. Understanding surface chemistry means gaining insights into the details of such fundamental processes as the rusting of iron, the working of car's catalytic converters, the function of fuel cells and the reactions that produce artificial fertilizers. Surface chemistry even comes into play in studies of the integrity of the ozone layer because chemical reactions that destroy ozone take place on the surfaces of ice crystals in the stratosphere. Ertl developed many of his techniques for studying surface chemistry by investigating the Haber–Bosch reaction;
and[in] that reaction—which takes place on the surface of iron—nitrogen is pulled out of the air and combined with hydrogen to form ammonia for use in fertilizers. The process has been used for a century, but Ertl explained it in detail for the first time. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Ertl's birthday presents included a lovely walking stick.
Steve: Now its time to play TOTALL…….Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL…….Y BOGUS.
Story number 1: Rather than become a professional skier like his cousin, Olympic gold medalist Alberto Tomba, new Nobel Laureate, Mario Capecchi used the millions of dollars he inherited to fund his own scientific research.
Story number 2: Cars designed to look more like animals might decrease accidents.
Story number 3: The Texas Horned Lizard collects and stores drinking water in channels between the scales of its back.
And story number 4: When researchers first noticed giant magneto resistance, or GMR, which ultimately won this year's physics Nobel, they thought their equipment must have malfunctioned, and they had a technician remove it.
Time is up.
Story number 2 is true. Cars resembling animals might get noticed faster by human brains and thus allow more time to react to dangerous driving situations. Researchers tested people's abilities to notice changes in photographs flashed before them and consistently saw animals that appeared in a picture a full second before noticing a car that showed up in [an] otherwise identical photo. That's probably because of evolutionary selection pressure to make us notice animals, especially those that might want to eat us. The research appeared in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences.
Story number 3 is true. The Texas Horned Lizard does indeed use channels on its back for fresh water collection; that info is part of an exhibit opening November 3rd at the American Museum of Natural History called "H2O Equals Life" all about water and how living things interact with it. For more information, go to www.amnh.org.
And story number 4 is true. When researchers first noticed the huge change in resistance that occurs in giant magneto resistance, they assumed malfunction and had a lab technician replace their equipment. When the new equipment produced the same results, they realized that the phenomenon was real. That's according to the live webcast of the Nobel Prize announcement that was carried at www.nobelprize.org.
All of which means that story number 1 about Mario Capecchi using his vast fortune to fund his own research is TOTALL…….Y BOGUS. Because Capecchi, who is not related to the skier, Alberto Tomba, lived in bombed out buildings and stole bread to survive as a street urchin in Italy during World War II. For more about his remarkable life, read the Scientific American profile of him at www.tinyurl.com/26z8wv.
Well that's it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. Check out numerous features at our Web site including the blog, Ask the Experts, and the latest science news, all at www.SciAm.com; and you can write to us at podcast@SciAm.com. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.