Imagine yourself banging your head against a tree over and over – it is not a very pleasant proposal. However, woodpeckers constantly hammer into trees without getting brain injuries. So how is it possible for the woodpecker to do this? Studies of its head anatomy revealed many mechanisms that prevent brain damage. This discovery awarded, in 2006, Ivan R. Schwab and Philip R.A. May an Ig Nobel Prize in the category of ornithology.
The same year a study about “why, when you bend dry spaghetti, it often breaks into more than two pieces” earned Basile Audoly and Sebastien Neukirch the Ig Nobel physics Prize. The Ig Nobel peace Prize went to Howard Stapleton for “inventing an electromechanical teenager repellant”, and the Ig Nobel acoustics Prize was received by D. Lynn Halpern, Randolph Blake and James Hillenbrand for “conducting experiments to learn why people dislike the sound of fingernails scraping on a blackboard”.
The Ig Nobel prize was initiated by Mark Abrahams in 1991. Since then, ten Prizes are yearly handed out in various categories, which include but are not limited to, peace, literature, physics, medicine and chemistry. Although the Ig Nobel Prize can be seen as a parody of the Scandinavian Nobel prize, it is not aiming at ridiculing science. Instead, it “honors achievements that first make people laugh, and then makes them think”. The Ig Nobel Prize highlights discoveries that seem trivial or ridiculous but actually reveal humorous and unexpected findings (which might turn out to be important down the road). It is a reminder to stay open minded and not to (prematurely) dismiss studies and discoveries that seem improbable or absurd. In the case of the woodpecker study, understanding the mechanisms that protect the woodpecker might help us to develop completely new ways to protect ourselves from brain damage.
Not only anatomical studies of birds have been rewarded with the Ig Nobel Prize. In another study, awarded with the Ig Nobel biology Prize in 2003, Kees Moeliker observed and documented homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck.
This year the 24th Ig nobel ceremony will be held on 18th of September in Harvard’s Sanders Theater (Cambridge, MA, USA) and the winners will receive their prizes directly from genuine Nobel Laureates. Don’t miss it; you can follow it live on the webpage for Improbable research.
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