Ignobel Indians

Several Indians have collected Ig Nobel prizes over the years, awarded for seemingly ridiculous scientific research
OFFBEAT
(Illustration: VIVEK THAKKAR)

KP SREEKUMAR

Won the 2002 Ig Nobel prize for Mathematics for his 1990 paper, ‘Estimation of the total surface area in Indian Elephants’

For KP Sreekumar, winning the Ig Nobel was an anticlimax. Most winners benefit from the never-before spotlight on their work that the prize guarantees, but Sreekumar didn’t exactly get covered in glory. Instead, his work became a quiz question. On a contest aired on TV, the quizmaster asked what the most foolish study ever to emerge from Kerala was. The correct answer was Sreekumar’s paper.

“It shattered me,” says the mild-mannered researcher from College of Veterinary and Animal Sciences in Mannuthy, a suburb of Kerala. Considering that a colleague of his almost got killed by an elephant tantrum while measuring the animal’s height, Sreekumar has reason to be bitter. He spent almost three years measuring 24 different elephants to develop a formula to predict their surface area. Elephants can be moody creatures. Throw in a few thousand kilograms of sheer, lumbering tonnage (Sreekumar’s subjects weighed between 1,880 kg and 5,290 kg), and you have reason to watch your manners around these jumbo pets.

Further, a quick Pubmed (a database of life-science papers) search reveals that this vet’s choice of subject was not that all flummoxing after all. As far back as the 1930s, researchers were measuring the surface areas of everything from chacma baboons and cotton rats to—for whatever obscure purpose it served—unborn pigs.

Animal researchers do this sort of thing all the time. The reasons can be many, but in Sreekumar’s case, it was to help calculate elephant metabolism. Say, you are a vet, and an elephant is running a fever. Unlike Tintin in The Cigars of the Pharaoh, you cannot simply dose it with a test tube of quinine out of a home-doctor kit. The dose administered to an elephant is a very precise function of its metabolism, which in turn is a function of its weight and surface area. However, when Sreekumar started out, there weren’t any recent studies covering these issues—a perfectly noble, or should we say Ignobel, reason to chase an elephant around with a measuring tape.

Sreekumar’s method was laborious. He divided the elephant’s surface into geometric shapes. The ear, for example, was a triangle, while the tail was a cylinder. After calculating the areas of about 13 parts of 24 elephants, Sreekumar calculated which parts were best correlated with total area. Then he used what is called the least squares method to find a formula for total area using only the elephant’s height and its forefoot pad circumference.

Ten years later, Sreekumar still recalls his colleagues’ ridicule with hurt. He was driven to write to the Ig Nobel Association about the unexpected backlash, and the Committee, in turn, sent him a letter explaining the relevance of his work. Sreekumar distributed this letter among his hecklers to silence them. Today, he studies ayurvedic herbs like ashwagandha and the use of beehives to deter crop raids by elephants. He has also turned his attention to predicting the age of elephants from factors such as tusk thickness and blotches around the ears. Another Ig Nobel contender? For his own sake, we hope not.

CHITTARANJAN ANDRADE AND BS SRIHARI

Won the 2001 Ig Nobel for Public Health for their study, ‘A preliminary survey of rhinotillexomania in an adolescent sample’. In plain English, this mania means picking one’s nose obsessively

There isn’t a trace of mirth on Andrade’s face when I ask why he was researching nose-picking. No matter how uproarious it may sound to me, to him it was a matter of utmost seriousness. Nothing else can explain the thoroughness of his paper.

In great detail, the paper delineates everything there is to know about how Indian kids treat their dried nasal mucus—from the motives of nose-picking (cosmetic, pleasure, hygiene), to the preferred instruments (fingers, tweezers, pencils). There are median and modal frequencies of nose-picking, and a breakup by socio-economic classes for good measure. You may fault it for evoking grimaces, but as the definitive study on nose picking, this paper cannot be touched. Little wonder, it found its way into the reputed Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

The irony is that it was just a one-off research project for Andrade. He had never studied nose-

picking earlier and will probably never again. His major interest is Electroconvulsive Therapy, on which he has authored a string of papers. This seeming digression only happened because Srihari, having done an MBBS, was scouting around for a possible subject for a research paper. Publishing papers is useful training for researchers, and count on one’s resume.

Andrade, who Srihari came to for advice, had come across a 1995 postal survey on nose-picking habits in Wisconsin, US. It had received very few responses and Andrade thought this could be improved upon. “I told him this was a good subject in terms of research methodology and collaborations with others,” says Andrade. And that’s how the seminal study on rhinotillexomania was born.

Why do scientists study such seeming trivialities? Possibly because such benign habits sometimes reach maniacal levels. The ghastly story of a woman who tore through her sinuses by scratching compulsively inside her nose isn’t just an urban legend. Some schizophrenics have torn their nasal septums unwittingly. “ENT doctors tell me one of the biggest causes of nosebleed is compulsive nose picking,” Andrade adds.

Nevertheless, the Ig Nobel he won is in danger of overshadowing Andrade’s other considerable achievements. His resume fits him neatly into the textbook stereotype of a chronic overachiever. Consider just his hobbies. This psychopharmacology departmental head at Bangalore’s National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences counts mountaineering (climbed six Himalayan peaks), music (plays the cello among four musical instruments), sports (state-level athlete, bridge and chess) and professional magic, among his avocations. Suitably, a sign above his desk says, ‘Please be brief. Do not take more than five minutes.’ It is a pity that the nose-picking study is what he is known best to many of us for.

RAVI BATRA

Was awarded the 1993 Ig Nobel for Economics for ‘selling enough copies of his books to single-handedly prevent worldwide economic collapse’. Six of his books have been New York Times bestsellers

It is hard to make up your mind about Ravi Batra. On one hand, his economic theories are agreeably commonsensical. Sample this: the main cause of any economic collapse is a widened wage-productivity gap. If more goods and services are produced, and the profits of firms skyrocket while workers’ wages stay stagnant, who is going to buy all the excess output? Such a scenario depresses demand and results in overcapacity. Soon, firms begin to lay people off, setting off a vicious cycle. Batra’s case in point is the US economy, where outsourcing has led to soaring profits for big business, while minimum wages buy less and less over time for beleaguered workers.

His theories would have been a lot more palatable, however, if he had restricted himself to economics. The trouble starts when he throws in the not-so-rigorous Law of Social Cycle that he is a great proponent of. Somewhat reminiscent of Manu’s four yugas (ages), and borrowed from Batra’s spiritual guru Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar, this law allows for grandiose predictions of sweeping changes in the world order.

The basis of this law is the four categories it divides humans into—labourers, intellectuals, acquisitors and warriors. The latter three classes are each said to dominate an era in time. In Batra’s worldview, the stark wealth gaps that characterise most economies in the world today put us squarely in the Age of Acquisitors. Consequence? We are headed for an Occupy-Wall-Street-style grassroots uprising, but on an unprecedented, global scale. What after that? You guessed it: The Golden Age.

When Occupy Wall Street did happen, Batra wrote an ‘I told you so’ article, which he enthusiastically shares with me. It turns out that he was right in predicting a ‘grassroots revolution’ sometime about now, but was wrong on other counts. A great depression he had predicted in the 1990s, for example, never happened. A US recession did occur that decade, but Batra’s bombastically titled The Great Depression of 1990, his first NYT bestseller, was proven—well—bombastically wrong.

Batra soon revised his prediction, though, arguing that because China and Japan began lending heavily to the US at this point, the depression was postponed to 2016. Batra likes to point out that he has made all of 40 predictions, and only 3-4 of them have been slightly off. “I am not God, you know,” he says with a disarming titter.

Yet, you can’t really blame him for being cocksure of his theories. In 1978, he wrote the book, The Downfall of Capitalism and Communism. In it, he predicted that the Soviet Union as well as America would collapse by 2000. This was more than a decade before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which was flourishing then. There was laughter, and in his own words, he’s been called a “crackpot”. And then, in a development that would have astonished most of his critics, the Soviet Union did collapse in 1991.

Today, Batra cannot stop saying QED, and reminds me that he had not predicted the downfall of Chinese-style communism. Why the distinction? “The Soviet system was in the Age of Warriors for 200-300 years, when their military was dominant. This had to come to an end by the turn of the century. Right now, it is in transition, moving into the Age of Intellectuals.”

China, on the other hand, is already in a golden age of its own, which is why its communism is intact. According to Batra, it was in the Age of Acquisitors till 1949. Then, the social revolution came and overthrew the rule of money, installing the military in its place.

Convincing? To some, maybe. But in the same breath and in the same book (The Downfall…), Batra also predicted that capitalism would end in 2000. This argument was later repeated in Great Depression… And to say that capitalism has come to an end would be laughable, the American and European crises notwithstanding.

This is where I am left hemming and hawing. So, I suspect, are most mainstream economists. If Batra left his crystal-gazing act behind, he might be accepted more easily. Not that he has had no acclaim beyond his Ig Nobel. The Italian senate awarded him a medal in 1991 for his Soviet Union prediction. Morgan Stanley’s one-time chief investment strategist, Barton Biggs, called Batra’s forecasting record ‘impressive’.

Academically, too, his credentials are spotless. This graduate of Delhi School of Economics has been a professor at Southern Methodist University in Texas since 1973. Why, he doesn’t even sound like a crackpot. His voice is earnest and even-toned—more like that of a wise martyr than a prophet of doom. And he seems so sincere, you almost wish 2016 brings with it a global economic collapse. After all, he promises a golden age afterwards. Could it be so bad?

RAMESH BALASUBRAMANIAM

Was awarded the 2004 Ig Nobel for Physics for his paper, ‘Coordination Modes in the Multisegmental Dynamics of Hula Hooping’

The only thing in Ramesh Balasubramaniam’s paper that gives me a hint that it is about hula hooping is a sketch of two dancing skeleton legs. The rest of it is abstruse and mathematical and filled with words like ‘lateral malleoli’. It is hard to believe that such language describes something as pleasant as hula hooping.

Bala assures me, though, that to describe this outdoorsy game takes very complex physics. And yet, hoop-dancing is so easy to learn that even a child can master it. It is this contradiction that piqued his curiosity about how the brain processes hula-hoop movements.

An important fact that Bala’s team discovered was that the brain divides the body into subsystems to process complex movements. Whirling a hula hoop is one such: on one hand, it needs sideways momentum to keep the hoop spinning, while on the other, it needs constant vertical thrusts to offset gravity and keep it suspended at the hips. Like a good manager, the hula-hooper’s brain neatly delegates duties here. The hooper’s hips and ankles are handed the task of maintaining sideways momentum, while the knees are told to counter gravity.

Why all this fuss about studying a simple game? “Hula hoops are funny,” concedes Bala, “but the objectives of this research were serious and grounded.” With an educational background in psychology and neurosciences, this 1992 graduate of BITS-Pilani was always interested in robotics and human movement.

In that pursuit, he founded the Sensorimotor Neurosciences Lab at Canada’s McMaster University. From studying how posture is maintained, to how the eyes move while reading grammar and music, the lab analyses obscure little problems about human movement until they are laid bare.

Among Bala’s research papers is another that looks like a contender for a repeat Ig Nobel—a study on the distinction between finger tapping and drawing circles in the air. Despite how trifling it sounds, though, this study is actually about how we perceive time. Tapping one’s finger requires a sort of mental metronome to keep time, while drawing circles in the air is a continuous task. Some patients with brain damage to a part of the cerebellum can do the latter, but have trouble with the former. “We want to develop an integrated view of the mechanisms underlying timed action,” says Bala. This will help rehabilitate people with limbs impaired by stroke or other neurological damage. Also on the anvil are smart robots that can mimic complex human actions and help such patients relearn them.

GAURI NANDA

Was awarded the 2005 Ig Nobel for Economics for ‘inventing an alarm clock that runs away and hides... ensuring people do get out of bed... adding many productive hours to the workday’

It’s a bird! It’s a bug! It’s Clocky! Simultaneously cute and annoying, Clocky, Gauri Nanda’s anthropomorphic alarm clock could be thought of as an overkill solution to the problem of waking up late. Like a little ninja warrior, it jumps off your bedside table and wheels as far away from you as it can—all to keep you from hitting snooze. Through it all, it beeps like a chirping bird, which—depending on how desperately sleepy you are—could sound cute or infuriate you.

While it may be far easier to simply place your alarm clock far away, the half million people who have bought Clocky since it went on sale in 2005 clearly don’t think so. Apart from countries like Japan, France and the UK, where Clocky has a cult following, it has sold about 1,000 pieces in India since its domestic launch two years ago.

Thirty-one-year-old Nanda, who first designed Clocky for her graduate class project at MIT Media Lab, comes across as a product designer first and businesswoman later. Nanda Home, her firm, was born in response to an overnight explosion of demand for her quirky alarm clock. In fact, when she first made Clocky in 2005, Nanda was not thinking of selling it at all. A chronic over sleeper, she had trouble getting to her classes on time and this gave her the idea of a runaway clock. It was displayed on the MIT Media Lab’s website, but commercial sites like Gizmodo picked it up and made it a viral sensation. “I had the email IDs of thousands of people who wanted to order it; retailers were calling to sell this product,” she recalls.

Still a student, Gauri didn’t really know what it took to start a company. After a few failed attempts at finding a business partner to make the clock, in 2006 she set up Nanda Home on her own with start-up capital of $87,000 from her family. After having operated with a skeletal staff for six years, she figures its time for expansion now—to market other offbeat ideas.

Due to hit stores later this year is an alarm clock for kids. It will have arms and legs and will “roll over and sleep with a child like a companion.” Another major theme for Nanda Home will be toys that change with time. “One of the problems with toys today is that kids forget them quickly. We want to build toys that change physically—behave in random and unexpected ways, like real people.”