Celebrating Great Minds

Cogito Ergo Occasum
Earlier this week, showing the kind of insight that is normally reserved for bricks and exceptionally stupid trees, a group of Wall Street financiers sat on a balcony and shared a champagne brunch as they watched, and derided, the common folk on the street below. For those of you who have not been privy to the ongoing occupation of Wall Street, you can’t be blamed, since the media that is paid for by these very wealthy people hasn’t been covering this at all. And if they do they tend to dismiss it as the rouge actions of a couple of hippies and their dirty dog B-I-N-G-O.

In fact there are thousands of protesters there and their number is growing daily. It is getting to the point that some very smart people are wondering if we may not be witnessing a true revolution. If the, so called, middle and under classes no longer buy into the status quo this whole country could come to a screeching halt. Way back in 1940, Rapmaster Bobby H. (a/k/a Robert Heinlein) wrote about a similar scenario in The Roads Must Roll. Although, in Heinlein’s world, it is an anti-union, anti-populist view, it still is a pretty solid look at what could happen. Keep in mind that the protesters in NYC are not violent or crazy. These are people just like you and I who are tired of all the financial gamesmanship that is going on. After all, every company listed in the Fortune 500 has been turning a profit since the President bailed them out. Yet very few have done anything with that money to help the economy or add jobs.

But some minds are not numb to the needs of humanity. In fact some minds seem patently unsure there is this thing called humanity. That, in fact, that humanity thing may just be a mathematical manifestation of string theory gone amok. Nevertheless that hasn’t prevented these minds from banding together for the betterment of all, whether said “all” actually exists or not.

There are many great scientific discoveries and tremendous social experiments that take place each year. We are here today to patently ignore them. Instead we are going to celebrate those wonderful minds that look at the effects of a full bladder on your ability to drive machinery.

No, I am not making this up. Mark Pratt has the whole story.

Driving while desperately needing to urinate isn’t a crime, but maybe it should be.

Peter Snyder and his colleagues found that having a bladder at its bursting point reduced attention span and the ability to make decisions to the same degree expected with low levels of alcohol intoxication or 24 hours of sleep deprivation. The research earned them the 2011 Ig Nobel prize for medicine.

“When people reach a point when they are in so much pain they just can’t stand it anymore, it was like being drunk,” said Snyder, a professor of neurology at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

“The ability to hold information was really impaired,” he said.

This year’s winners of the dubious distinction handed out Thursday at Harvard University for head-scratching scientific discoveries included a team of Japanese scientists who invented a fire alarm that smells like wasabi; a European mayor who solved his city’s parking problems with a piece of heavy military equipment; a Norwegian researcher who explored the science behind sighing; and the numerous people throughout history whose mathematical calculations to predict the end of the world have fallen flat.

The 21st annual awards sponsored by the Annals of Improbable Research were handed out by real Nobel laureates and featured the usual doses of silliness, including a mini-opera about the chemistry in a coffee shop and the ritual launching of paper airplanes.

The point of Snyder’s work was to determine the effects of pain on decision-making. Working with full bladders is a “low cost, low risk” way of causing pain that can be resolved easily, simply by going to the bathroom.

The research, done with scientists at Australian universities, was also fun. The group even crowned an unofficial withholding champion — the person who could go the longest before his bladder exploded. Australian researcher David Darby held out for three hours.

Vilnius, Lithuania Mayor Arturas Zuokas won the Ig Nobel peace prize for his heavy-handed way of dealing with parking scofflaws. He crushed their cars with a military armored personnel carrier.

“I just decided that it was time to teach bullies who had no respect for the rights of others a lesson that left an impression,” he said in an email.

In a video posted on YouTube, Zuokas crushes a Mercedes-Benz blocking not just a bicycle lane, but also a pedestrian crossing, in Vilnius’ picturesque Old Town.

Zuokas was coy when asked whether the car-crushing was a stunt — the well-dressed owner did not appear to be too angry — but said the plan appears to have worked. The city has returned to what the mayor calls “more standard and boring” means of controlling parking scofflaws: issuing tickets and towing vehicles.

But he warns he has the tank on standby.

The chemistry prize went to Japanese researchers who invented a fire alarm that emits the pungent odor of wasabi, the sinus-clearing green paste served with sushi.

“Wasabi odor is useful as a fire alarm to deaf people who failed to wake up with a conventional mode such as sound, vibration or flashing light,” said Makoto Imai, professor of psychiatry at Shiga University of Medical Science.

The key is allyl isothiocyanate, the compound in wasabi that gives out its distinctive smell and can be detected even during sleep.

The team settled on wasabi after trying about 100 odors, including rotten eggs.

Karl Teigen’s research, which won him the psychology prize, perhaps best embodies the spirit of the Ig Nobels. His study on why people sigh has no practical applications as far as he can determine. He and his students decided to study sighing simply because they found no one else had.

“People think that others’ sighs chiefly express sadness and sorrow, but that their own sighs are more often due to resignation and giving up,” said Teigen, a psychology professor at the University of Oslo in Norway. “We studied the giving up aspect experimentally by giving people puzzles that looked simple, but they could not solve. And they sighed. We think they sighed because they had to give up a hypothesis, an idea, a hope, or an attempt — and perhaps be ready for a new one.”

Most winners were delighted to take home the prize.

“It certainly caught me off guard,” said Snyder, the Brown professor. “But at heart I am a teacher, and I am concerned that scientific literacy in this country is on the decline. The Ig Nobels show that science isn’t always dry and technical, and can be fun.”

Teigen played on the Ig Nobels’ own catchphrase to describe his feelings. “Ig Nobel prizes are assumed to make people laugh and then think — and I would add: then sigh.”

Now that you’re done laughing at the ideas presented above I hope you can take a minute to realize that every one of them, except that whole sighing thing, are 100% useful. The wasabi alarm could save lives and the study of pain on a person’s ability to concentrate could have many long term ramifications. Last year’s winners included a bra that could be used as a gas mask in an emergency. Stupid? Yes. Useful? Sure would be if some idiot decides to blow something up near your home and you need to keep breathing.

Also, you gotta admit, ripping a bra off a woman to save both your lives (one cup per mouth) is a heck of a lot more fun than wrapping a hanky around your head.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qE41YPdPuis&w=480&h=360]

Listen to Bill McCormick on WBIG AM 1280, every Thursday morning around 9:10!

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