Archive for 'Ig Nobel'

Sad news: Trinkaus is out for the count

Sunday, November 12th, 2017

John Trinkaus, who was awarded the 2003 Ig Nobel literature prize, for meticulously collecting data and publishing more than 80 detailed academic reports about things that annoyed him, died. His family notified us today.

John (who enjoyed jokingly referring to himself as “Trinkaus”) was one of New York’s overlooked treasures. We became friends after he won his Ig Nobel Prize. Trinkaus loved to explain that he did all those studies for the satisfaction of doing them—not to amass academic credit. He published the first of those reports, he said, after he had gotten tenure. He was a professor at the Zicklin School of Business, in New York City.

One of the most unusual things about Trinkaus was that he, mostly, simply counted how many times the annoying things happened. Unlike many academics, Trinkaus did not search for imaginative theories about the things he counted. Here’s a photo of Trinkaus (center) accepting his Ig Nobel Prize (a plexiglas cube containing a nanogram of gold) from Nobel laureate Wolfgang Ketterle. Ig Nobel minordomo Julia Lunetta is at left:

Here are a few of the studies of things that annoyed John Trinkaus:

  • What percentage of young people wear baseball caps with the peak facing to the rear rather than to the front
  • What percentage of pedestrians wear sport shoes that are white rather than some other color
  • What percentage of swimmers swim laps in the shallow end of a pool rather than the deep end
  • What percentage of automobile drivers almost, but not completely, come to a stop at one particular stop-sign
  • What percentage of commuters carry attaché cases
  • What percentage of shoppers exceed the number of items permitted in a supermarket’s express checkout lane
  • What percentage of students dislike the taste of Brussels sprouts.

Eighty-six of of Trinkaus’s publications are listed in “Trinkaus—An Informal Look,” which appeared in the Annals of Improbable Research, vol. 9, no. 3 (the special Everything issue), May/Jun 2003.

You can watch video of Trinkaus receiving the Ig Nobel Prize, and delivering his acceptance speech.

Trinkaus did some of his finest work after winning his Ig Nobel Prize. The most celebrated was a series of studies in which he documented that most children seemed indifferent about visiting Santa Claus at a shopping mall — and that the kids’ parents, unlike the kids, were excited.

To the best of our knowledge, no academic has followed Trinkaus’s lead in carefully, relentlessly documenting things that annoy them, tallying exactly how frequently those things occur.

If there is a heaven, it will now learn exactly how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

BONUS: The year after Trinkaus was awarded his Ig Nobel Prize, he returned to the ceremony and took part in that year’s mini-opera. You can watch him dancing the can-can as part of that opera’s final song, about the coffee diet.

BONUS: In 2004, Fortune magazine asked me to write about Trinkaus. I began that article with this question: “Does one man count for nothing?

UPDATE: His obituary, in Newsday.

Named-cow researcher recognizes merit in research on sheep recognizing people

Friday, November 10th, 2017

“I was asked if, as an Ig Nobel laureate myself, I thought this recent Cambridge sheep study would be a contender for an Ig Nobel award, the prize for science that “first makes you laugh, then makes you think”. Celebrity-spotting sheep might sound funny but the science involved in this study actually isn’t sniggerable.” So writes Catherine Douglas of Newcastle University, in The Conversation.

Douglas’s essay has the headline “Sheep can recognise celebrities from photographs, says amusing study with serious potential.”

The 2009 Ig Nobel Prize for Veterinary Medicine was awarded to  Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson of Newcastle University, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK, for showing that cows who have names give more milk than cows that are nameless.

That prize-winning research is documented in the study “Exploring Stock Managers’ Perceptions of the Human-Animal Relationship on Dairy Farms and an Association with Milk Production,” Catherine Bertenshaw [Douglas] and Peter Rowlinson, Anthrozoos, vol. 22, no. 1, March 2009, pp. 59-69

He recommends you read the book The Ig Nobel Prizes. So do we.

Monday, October 16th, 2017

Adrian Wallwork explains, in this video, why he recommends that his students read the book The Ig Nobel Prizes. We recommend that, too. (Too, we recommend to you The Ig Nobel Prizes 2.)

Pseudo-profound bullshit commemorated: The Laffer Curve

Saturday, October 14th, 2017

Today the New York Times celebrates, deadpan, a fake relic of a historically influential example of pseudo-profound bullshit. Under the headline “This Is Not Arthur Laffer’s Famous Napkin,The Times says:

It is one of the iconic moments in modern economics: A young professor named Arthur Laffer sketched a curve on a bar napkin in 1974 to show an aide to President Gerald R. Ford why the federal government should cut taxes.

The Laffer Curve became famous; the Republican Party became the party of tax cuts; and, in 2015, the Smithsonian announced that it was putting the napkin on display.

But the napkin now celebrated for starting a tax revolt is not, in fact, the original napkin….

Although some politicians claimed to take the Laffer Curve seriously (thus leading to their claimed reverence for a replica napkin), mathematicians, economists, and the world in general delighted in pointing out that it was nonsense.

Martin Gardner, the Scientific American columnist, destroyed the Laffer curve illusion, in one of his final columns. Martin also is the person whose advice started me on my writing career. I wrote this about that, when Martin died:

My own favorite of Martin’s works is the final column he wrote for Scientific American — a deadly, hilariously efficient dissection of a gold-plated piece of nonsense. That final column was called “The Laffer curve and other laughs in current economics” [Scientific American, December, 1981, vol. 245, pp. 18-31]. It drew wrathful, spittle-flecked letters from  people who bought their intellectual fashion items at The Emperor’s New Clothes shop. “No economist has the foggiest notion of what a Laffer curve really looks like except in the neighborhood of its endpoints,” the column says. One of that column’s lovely technical drawings is reproduced below (thanks to Wikipedia).

That final column itself  [you can read it online] is reproduced in the book The Night Is Large, a collection of many of Martin’s best writings.

In celebrating anew the Laffer curve, pretending that it corresponds to reality, some politicians (and perhaps the New York Times?) unintendedly also celebrate the 2016 Ig Nobel Peace Prize.

The 2016 Ig Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Gordon PennycookJames Allan CheyneNathaniel BarrDerek Koehler, and Jonathan Fugelsang for their scholarly study called “On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit.” [That paper was published in the journal Judgment and Decision Making, vol. 10, no. 6, November 2015, pp. 549–563.]


Downstream reactions from the 4-legged periodic table table

Friday, October 13th, 2017

From Mark Peplow’s review, in the journal Nature, of the new book by Ig Nobel Prize-winner Theo Gray:

Gray’s career as a chemical evangelist began in 2002, when he misread a line in Oliver Sacks’s Uncle Tungsten (Knopf, 2001) and imagined the periodic table of elements as a literal table. A skilled woodworker, Gray decided to build it and stock cavities beneath each symbol with samples of the elements.

Then, he recalls, “things really got out of hand” ( The table won the 2002 Ig Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and spawned a cottage industry: Gray now sells periodic-table posters, books and quilts, and makes museum displays. With photographer Nick Mann, he has amassed a gallery of element photos, showcased in his 2009 book The Elements. Its sequel, Molecules, followed in 2014; Reactions is the final part of the trilogy (all published by Black Dog & Leventhal)….