Winning an Ig Nobel Beats a Sharp Blow to the Skull, Maybe

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October 01, 2009

Anyone unlucky enough to have been smashed in the head with a beer bottle (but lucky enough to have survived it) probably has a couple questions rattling around in his brain:

1. Why me?

2. Has my skull been cracked open?

Stephan A. Bolliger and his team of researchers at the University of Bern, in Switzerland, can't help with the first one, but they considered the likelihood of the second in a paper published this spring the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine.

At the "19th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony," held Thursday at Harvard University, the team members received the 2009 Ig Nobel Peace Prize for their paper "Are Full or Empty Beer Bottles Sturdier and Does Their Fracture-Threshold Suffice to Break the Human Skull?" Genuine Nobel Prize winners, acting at the behest of the science-humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research, handed out awards in 10 categories for "achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think."

Although Dr. Bolliger and his colleagues—Steffen Ross, Lars Oesterhelweg, Michael J. Thali, and Beat P. Kneubuehl—did not bash bottles into test subjects' heads, their paper says that "according to the authors' own experience," the half-liter beer bottle is commonly used in physical disputes, at least in Switzerland.

The researchers study blunt and sharp trauma among both dead and living people who have had bottles smashed on their heads in bar fights. For their paper, the researchers dropped steel balls from varying heights onto full and empty bottles that were packed with a layer of modeling clay to simulate the head of an unsuspecting bar patron.

What they found was striking: It took 10 joules more energy to break the empty bottles than the full ones. On the other hand, a full bottle has 70 percent more striking force. And finally, this (based on earlier tests involving the heads of cadavers): Empty or full, a beer bottle is sturdy enough to break a skull before the skull breaks it.

"Prohibition of these bottles is therefore justified in situations which involve risk of human conflicts," the team concluded.

The other honorees:

Veterinary Medicine: Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson, of Newcastle University, in England, "for showing that cows who have names give more milk than cows that are nameless." (Paper: "Exploring Stock Managers' Perceptions of the Human-Animal Relationship on Dairy Farms and an Association With Milk Production," Anthrozoös, March 2009.)

Economics: The directors, executives, and auditors of four Icelandic banks "for demonstrating that tiny banks can be rapidly transformed into huge banks, and vice versa, and for demonstrating that similar things can be done to an entire national economy."

Chemistry: Javier Morales, Miguel Apátiga, and Victor M. Castaño, of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, "for creating diamonds from liquid—specifically, tequila." (Paper: "Growth of Diamond Films From Tequila," arXiv, 2008.)

Medicine: Donald L. Unger, a physician in Thousand Oaks, Calif., "for investigating a possible cause of arthritis of the fingers by diligently cracking the knuckles of his left hand"—but never those of his right—daily for more than 60 years. (Paper: "Does Knuckle Cracking Lead to Arthritis of the Fingers?" Arthritis & Rheumatism, May 1998.) His conclusion? No, it doesn't.

Physics: Katherine K. Whitcome, of the University of Cincinnati, Daniel E. Lieberman, of Harvard University, and Liza J. Shapiro, of the University of Texas at Austin, "for analytically determining why pregnant women don't tip over." (Paper: "Fetal Load and the Evolution of Lumbar Lordosis in Bipedal Hominins," Nature, December 13, 2007.)

Literature: Ireland's police service, for writing more than 50 traffic tickets to one Prawo Jazdy. (As it turned out, whenever the Irish cops pulled over a motorist with a Polish driver's license, they mistakenly recorded the Polish word for driver's license, "Prawo Jazdy," as the driver's name.)

Public Health: Elena N. Bodnar, of Hinsdale, Ill., and Ukraine, and Raphael C. Lee and Sandra Marijan, of Chicago, Ill., for "inventing a brassiere that can be quickly converted into a pair of gas masks," one for the wearer and one for some lucky bystander.

Mathematics: Gideon Gono, governor of Zimbabwe's Reserve Bank, "for giving people a simple, everyday way to cope with a wide range of numbers—from very small to very big—by having his bank print bank notes with denominations ranging from one cent to $100-trillion."

Biology: Fumiaki Taguchi, Song Guofu, and Zhang Guanglei, of the Kitasato University Graduate School of Medical Sciences, "for demonstrating that kitchen refuse can be reduced more than 90 percent in mass by using bacteria extracted from the feces of giant pandas." (Paper: "Microbial Treatment of Kitchen Refuse With Enzyme-Producing Thermophilic Bacteria From Giant Panda Feces," abstracted in the Journal of Bioscience and Bioengineering, Vol. 92, No. 6, 2001.)