A New Academic Year Begins… Bring on the Ig Nobels!

Summer is, sadly, over. Freshers week is, thankfully, also over. And yet another academic year kicked off with that most amusing of academic traditions: the Ig Nobel Prizes.

This year the Ig Nobels, which recognise research that “first makes people laugh then makes them think”, celebrated its 25th first annual award ceremony.

In case you’ve never heard of the Ig Nobels, they are described by singer Amanda Palmer, herself a little off-the-wall, as “a collection of, like, actual Nobel Prize winners giving away prizes to real scientists for doing f’d-up things…”

Ig Nobels Harvard

For a quarter-century, the Igs have been dishing out prizes for unusual research, ranging from the infamous case study of homosexual necrophilia in ducks, to the 2001 patent issued for a “circular transportation facilitation device” (i.e. a wheel).

The award ceremony takes place in Harvard’s largest theatre and resembles something akin to the Oscars crossed with the Rocky Horror Show. The lucky winners, drawn from a field of 9,000 hopefuls, are indeed presented their prize by a one of a “group of genuine, genuinely bemused Nobel Laureates”.

Michael Smith

In 2010, one scientist became the first to win both an Ig and a real Nobel: Sir Andre Geim was awarded the former for his work on graphene, and the latter for levitating a frog with super strong magnets (Geim also co-authored a paper with his pet hamster, Tisha).

By the far the most bizarre this year is a study in which chickens were fitted with prosthetic tails to see if their modified gait could provide clues as to how dinosaurs walked (yes, there is a video).

Sans titre

Other gems this year include:

  • A chemical recipe to partially un-boil an egg.
  • A paper answering the question: “Is ‘Huh’ A Universal World?”
  • A series of studies looking at the biomedical benefits, and consequences, of intense kissing.

If you are looking for a bit of distraction after the whirlwind of the first weeks of term, you can watch the whole ceremony online, or explore all the prizes to date with this neat data viz tool.

As is now the norm, the whole thing was also live-tweeted (#IgNobel). In fact, the Igs employ an “official observer” to linger on stage, head buried in smartphone, for this purpose.

Elsewhere on Twitter this week, I discovered:

  • That animated gifs make for great academic metaphors:

    • That the resident penguin at the University of Portsmouth library has its own account:

  • That National Punctuation Day is a thing:


Penguins are adorable. On this we can all agree. Perhaps it is through their sheer cuteness that they have managed to waddle their way into some rather obscure corners of academia. Here we give you our favourite Penguin papers and other tidbits. Please do let us know if you find Penguins turning up elsewhere.

A 'Penguin' diagram, before the infusion of darts, beer, and drugs.

A ‘Penguin’ diagram, before the infusion of darts, beer, and drugs.

1. Particle Physics Penguins
Perhaps the most famous use of the Penguins likeness comes from particle physics, where it is used to represent “[something very complicated in high energy physics that I don’t understand at all]”.

What is perhaps less well-known is how these diagrams came about. Originally, the Penguin diagrams looked nothing like Penguins. That all changed when John Ellis, now Professor of Theoretical Physics at King’s College London, went for a drink with Melissa Franklin and Serge Rudaz. As he recalls:1

In case you were struggling to see the resemblance...

In case you were struggling to see the resemblance…

Melissa and I started a game of darts. We made a bet that if I lost I had to put the word penguin into my next paper. She actually left the darts game before the end, and was replaced by Serge, who beat me. Nevertheless, I felt obligated to carry out the conditions of the bet.

It is worth noting that this loss was in itself rather improbable. Rudaz later admitted that for him to beat Ellis at a game of darts was a “miraculous event”: “John was a very strong player and had his own set of darts which he brought to the pub”.2 Nonetheless, Ellis now had to find some way to work Penguins into his next paper, no easy task.

For some time, it was not clear to me how to get the word into this b quark paper that we were writing at the time. Then, one evening, after working at CERN, I stopped on my way back to my apartment to visit some friends living in Meyrin where I smoked some illegal substance. Later, when I got back to my apartment and continued working on our paper, I had a sudden flash that the famous diagrams look like penguins. So we put the name into our paper, and the rest, as they say, is history.


John Ellis drawing up one of his famous physics Penguins.

Of course, the scientists were not happy with just one type of Penguin, so a new Super Penguin was subsequently spawned.3

This is just, brilliant.

This is just, brilliant.

2. Chemistry Penguins
Not to be outdone by the physicists, the chemists decided to get in on the joke. Said chemists decided that 3,4,4,5-tetramethylcyclohexa-2,5-dien-1-one was rather a dull name for a chemical. Noting that its skeletal formula looked quite like a Penguin, they decided to give it the common name Penguinone.4

1. Penguin. 2. Penguinone.

1. Penguin. 2. Penguinone.

penguin33. Penguin Poo
You may or may not be aware that Penguins, in particular Chinstrap and Adelie Penguins, defecate rather forcefully. This fact evidently proved worthy of further study to Dr. Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow and Jozsef Gal, who published a dedicated paper in Polar Biology: ‘Pressures produced when penguins pooh—calculations on avian defaecation‘. Dr. Meyer-Rochow describes how this unusual paper came to be:5

Our project started in Antarctica during the first (and only) Jamaican Antarctic Expedition in 1993… Many photographs of penguins and their “decorated” nests were taken. Later at a slide show… I was asked by a student during question time to explain how the penguins decorated their nests. I answered: They get up, move to the edge of the nest, turn around, bend over- and shoot… she blushed, the audience chuckled, and we got the idea to calculate the pressures produces when penguins poo.


A helpful diagram.

As with many of the more unusual papers that we have found lurking in the backwaters of academia, Penguin Poo elicited a number of genuine scientific research questions.6 A palaeontologist studying dinosaur biology thought that the calculations could be applied to similar streaks found near fossil dinosaur nests, zoo-operators inquired about ‘safe’ distances for visitors, and a medical researcher was inspired to recalculate the same measures for humans, as that data was now quite old!7

Penguin poo, as it turns out, can serve another useful purpose: locating Penguin colonies from space. In a paper entitled ‘Penguins from space: faecal stains reveal the location of emperor penguin colonies‘, researchers used satellite imagery to spot distinctive brown stains on the ice, left by Emperor Penguin colonies. Using this technique, they were able to locate 10 new colony locations, reposition six known locations by over 10 km, and rule out 6 old locations.

If you are not already tired of Penguins, there is of course a huge body of research concerning these beautiful birds that can keep you amused for hours. Recent finds include decoding of a ‘language’ used by Jackass Penguins and discovery of fossils of a giant, 2m tall, Penguin. Or you can just leave it here, happy in the knowledge that Norway once knighted a Penguin :-).

Nils Olav receiving his knighthood.

Nils Olav receiving his knighthood.

  1. Ellis passed on his recollections to Mikhail Shifman, who subsequently reproduced them in the foreword to his book, ITEP Lectures in Particle Physicshttp://arxiv.org/pdf/hep-ph/9510397v1.pdf
  2. Vainshtein, A., ‘How Penguins Started to Fly’ (Sakurai Prize Lecture, 1999) http://arxiv.org/pdf/hep-ph/9906263.pdf.
  3. Dujmic, D., ‘BaBar Searches for Super-Penguins’ (September 14, 2006) SLAC Today http://today.slac.stanford.edu/a/2006/09-14.htm.
  4. The lovely people over at i can has science did a bit of digging and found that Penguinone is mentioned in the literature around 10 times, but that searches of a chemistry database produced no results. It is therefore not clear whether a chemist actually named this molecule, or whether the internet has worked its magic and nobody has the heart to dispel the myth.
  5. Personal website: http://www.meyer-rochow.com/penguinpoo.htm
  6. Personal website: http://www.meyer-rochow.com/penguinqa.htm
  7. It is not immediately clear exactly what the practical application of such measurements is.