“Indians Also Lead in Improbable Research”

V Sudarshan writes in the October 5, 2014 issue of The New Indian Express:

Indians Also Lead in Improbable Research

Some of you might be wondering if Indians have been completely ignored by the Ig Nobel committee and if Indians consequently are as under-represented in the Ig Nobel prize as they are in the Nobel prize, where you can count them all in the fingers of both your hands. I hasten to assure you that is not the case. Indians are out there in the frontiers of esoteric science, keeping abreast with those who are studying if humans swim faster in syrup or water, what odours do frogs give off when they are feeling stressed, whether it is safe to eat food that is dropped on the floor, chemically investigating bronze statues that fail to attract pigeons… The Indian flag thus waves proudly at the Ig Nobel prize ceremonies (even though some of them may not be Indian passport holders, their names sound pretty Indian).

Here is the readout of our tally:

PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee shared the 1998 prize with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif for “aggressively peaceful explosions of the atom bomb”. (Eight years earlier, the peace prize had gone to Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb and the first champion of the Star Wars weapons system for his lifelong efforts to change the meaning of peace as we know it.)

In 2001, the Public Health Ig Nobel went to Chittaranjan Andrade and B S Srihari of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bangalore, for their medical discovery that nose-picking is a common activity among adolescents.

The next year, Indians K P Sreekumar and late G Nirmalan of Kerala Agricultural University were honoured with the Mathematics prize when they came up with their report, “Estimation of the total surface area in Indian Elephants.” This was published in 1990 in the journal Veterinary Research Communications Vol 14, pages 5-17. Readers of our Kerala editions will be delighted to note that Sreekumar is the first Malayali to have won this prestigious prize. I honestly thought that the medical prize of the previous year which went for an “impactful report” on “injuries due to falling coconuts” would be of Kerala origin as well, but regretfully no. (It went to Peter Bars of McGill University.)

One of the awardees of the Physics prize of 2004 was Ramesh Balasubramaniam of the University of Ottawa (and Michael Turvey of the University of Connecticut), for explaining the dynamics of hula-hooping. Last heard, they were looking into the dynamics of hula-hooping while swallowing live goldfish.

In 2005, Gauri Nanda of Massachusetts Institute of Technology won the Economics Ig Nobel for inventing an alarm clock that runs away and hides repeatedly, thus ensuring that people do get out of bed, and thus theoretically adding many more productive hours to the workday. I believe some of her innovative designs involve computers that work by falling to the floor or after being ripped apart.

The 2008 medicine prize was shared by four people—Dan Ariely of Duke University, Rebecca Waber of MIT, Ziv Carmon of INSEAD, Singapore, and Baba Shiv of Stanford. They demonstrated that high-priced fake medicines are more effective than low-priced fake medicines in a paper under the heading: Commercial Features of Placebo and Therapeutic Efficacy. Further checking on Baba Shiv showed he held a BE (1983) from the College of Engineering, Guindy, in Chennai, and an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. I am out of space again.

NOTE: Had V Sudarshan not run out of space again, the article would also have included several other Indian winners of Ig Nobel Prizes:

BONUS: A September 19, 2014 BBC News Report: “Two Indians win Ig Nobel awards

UPDATE: On October 12, V Sudarshan added to the list: “Unbelievable: We Are Like This Only

Improbable Research