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  • George and Charlotte Blonsky, who were

  • a married couple living in the Bronx in New York City,

  • invented something.

  • They got a patent in 1965 for what they call,

  • "a device to assist women in giving birth."

  • This device consists of a large, round table

  • and some machinery.

  • When the woman is ready to deliver her child,

  • she lies on her back,

  • she is strapped down to the table,

  • and the table is rotated at high speed.

  • The child comes flying out

  • through centrifugal force.

  • If you look at their patent carefully,

  • especially if you have any engineering background or talent,

  • you may decide that you see

  • one or two points where the design is not perfectly adequate. (Laughter)

  • Doctor Ivan Schwab in California

  • is one of the people, one of the main people,

  • who helped answer the question,

  • "Why don't woodpeckers get headaches?"

  • And it turns out the answer to that

  • is because their brains

  • are packaged inside their skulls

  • in a way different from the way

  • our brains, we being human beings,

  • true, have our brains packaged.

  • They, the woodpeckers, typically

  • will peck, they will bang their head

  • on a piece of wood thousands of times every day. Every day!

  • And as far as anyone knows,

  • that doesn't bother them in the slightest.

  • How does this happen?

  • Their brain does not slosh around like ours does.

  • Their brain is packed in very tightly,

  • at least for blows coming right from the front.

  • Not too many people paid attention

  • to this research until the last few years

  • when, in this country especially,

  • people are becoming curious about

  • what happens to the brains of football players

  • who bang their heads repeatedly.

  • And the woodpecker maybe relates to that.

  • There was a paper published

  • in the medical journal The Lancet

  • in England a few years ago called

  • " A man who pricked his finger and smelled putrid for 5 years."

  • Dr. Caroline Mills and her team

  • received this patient and didn't really know what to do about it.

  • The man had cut his finger,

  • he worked processing chickens,

  • and then he started to smell really, really bad.

  • So bad that when he got in a room

  • with the doctors and the nurses,

  • they couldn't stand being in the room with him.

  • It was intolerable.

  • They tried every drug,

  • every other treatment they could think of.

  • After a year, he still smelled putrid.

  • After two years, still smelled putrid.

  • Three years, four years, still smelled putrid.

  • After five years, it went away on its own.

  • It's a mystery.

  • In New Zealand, Dr. Lianne Parkin

  • and her team tested an old tradition in her city.

  • They live in a city that has huge hills,

  • San Francisco-grade hills.

  • And in the winter there, it gets very cold

  • and very icy.

  • There are lots of injuries.

  • The tradition that they tested,

  • they tested by asking people

  • who were on their way to work in the morning,

  • to stop and try something out.

  • Try one of two conditions.

  • The tradition is that in the winter,

  • in that city, you wear your socks on the outside of your boots.

  • And what they discovered by experiment,

  • and it was quite graphic when they saw it,

  • was that it's true.

  • That if you wear your socks on the outside rather than the inside,

  • you're much more likely to survive and not slip and fall.

  • Now, I hope you will agree with me that these things

  • I've just described to you,

  • each of them, deserves some kind of prize. (Laughter)

  • And that's what they got,

  • each of them got an Ig Nobel prize.

  • In 1991, I, together with bunch of other people,

  • started the Ig Nobel prize ceremony.

  • Every year we give out 10 prizes.

  • The prizes are based on just one criteria. It's very simple.

  • It's that you've done something that makes people laugh and then think.

  • What you've done makes people laugh and then think.

  • Whatever it is, there's something about it

  • that when people encounter it at first,

  • their only possible reaction is to laugh.

  • And then a week later,

  • it's still rattling around in their heads

  • and all they want to do is tell their friends about it.

  • That's the quality we look for.

  • Every year, we get in the neighborhood

  • of 9,000 new nominations for the Ig Nobel prize.

  • Of those, consistently between 10 percent

  • and 20 percent of those nominations

  • are people who nominate themselves.

  • Those self-nominees almost never win.

  • It's very difficult, numerically, to win a prize if you want to.

  • Even if you don't want to,

  • it's very difficult numerically.

  • You should know that when we choose somebody

  • to win an Ig Nobel prize,

  • We get in touch with that person, very quietly.

  • We offer them the chance to decline

  • this great honor if they want to.

  • Happily for us, almost everyone who's offered a prize

  • decides to accept.

  • What do you get if you win an Ig Nobel prize?

  • Well, you get several things.

  • You get an Ig Nobel prize.

  • The design is different every year.

  • These are always handmade from extremely cheap materials.

  • You're looking at a picture

  • of the prize we gave last year, 2013.

  • Most prizes in the world also give

  • their winners some cash, some money.

  • We don't have any money,

  • so we can't give them.

  • In fact, the winners have to pay their own way

  • to come to the Ig Nobel ceremony,

  • which most of them do.

  • Last year, though, we did manage to scrape up some money.

  • Last year, each of the 10 Ig Nobel prize winners

  • received from us 10 trillion dollars.

  • A $10 trillion bill from Zimbabwe. (Laughter)

  • You may remember that Zimbabwe had a little adventure

  • for a few years there of inflation.

  • They ended up printing bills

  • that were in denominations as large as 100 trillion dollars.

  • The man responsible, who runs the national bank there, by the way,

  • won an Ig Nobel prize in mathematics.

  • The other thing you win is an invitation

  • to come to the ceremony,

  • which happens at Harvard University.

  • And when you get there,

  • you come to Harvard's biggest meeting place and classroom.

  • It fits 1,100 people,

  • it's jammed to the gills,

  • and up on the stage,

  • waiting to shake your hand,

  • waiting to hand you your Ig Nobel prize,

  • are a bunch of Nobel prize winners.

  • That's the heart of the ceremony.

  • The winners are kept secret until that moment,

  • even the Nobel laureates who will shake their hand

  • don't know who they are until they're announced.

  • I am going to tell you about just a very few

  • of the other medical-related prizes we've given.

  • Keep in mind, we've given 230 prizes.

  • There are lots of these people who walk among you.

  • Maybe you have one.

  • A paper was published about 30 years ago

  • called "Injuries due to Falling Coconuts."

  • It was written by Dr. Peter Barss,

  • who is Canadian.

  • Dr. Barss came to the ceremony

  • and explained that as a young doctor,

  • he wanted to see the world.

  • So he went to Papua New Guinea.

  • When he got there, he went to work in a hospital, and he was curious

  • what kinds of things happen to people that bring them to the hospital.

  • He looked through the records, and he discovered

  • that a surprisingly large number of people

  • in that hospital were there

  • because of injuries due to falling coconuts.

  • One typical thing that happens is

  • people will come from the highlands, where there are not many coconut trees,

  • down to visit their relatives on the coast,

  • where there are lots.

  • And they'll think that a coconut tree

  • is a fine place to stand and maybe lie down.

  • A coconut tree that is 90 feet tall,

  • and has coconuts that weigh two pounds

  • that can drop off at any time.

  • A team of doctors in Europe

  • published a series of papers about colonoscopies.

  • You're all familiar with colonoscopies,

  • one way or another.

  • Or in some cases,

  • one way and another.

  • They, in these papers,

  • explained to their fellow doctors who perform colonoscopies,

  • how to minimize the chance

  • that when you perform a colonoscopy,

  • your patient will explode. (Laughter)

  • Dr. Emmanuel Ben-Soussan

  • one of the authors,

  • flew in from Paris to the ceremony,

  • where he explained the history of this,

  • that in the 1950s,

  • when colonoscopies were becoming a common technique for the first time,

  • people were figuring out how to do it well.

  • And there were some difficulties at first.

  • The basic problem, I'm sure you're familiar with,

  • that you're looking inside a long, narrow, dark place.

  • And so, you want to have a larger space.

  • You add some gas to inflate it

  • so you have room to look around.

  • Now, that's added to the gas, the methane gas,

  • that's already inside.

  • The gas that they used at first, in many cases, was oxygen.

  • So they added oxygen to methane gas.

  • And then they wanted to be able to see,

  • they needed light,

  • so they'd put in a light source,

  • which in the 1950s was very hot.

  • So you had methane gas, which is flammable,

  • oxygen and heat.

  • They stopped using oxygen pretty quickly. (Laughter)

  • Now it's rare that patients will explode,

  • but it does still happen.

  • The final thing that I want to tell you about is a prize

  • we gave to Dr. Elena Bodnar.

  • Dr. Elena Bodnar invented a brassiere

  • that in an emergency

  • can be quickly separated

  • into a pair of protective face masks.

  • One to save your life,

  • one to save the life of some lucky bystander. (Laughter)

  • Why would someone do this, you might wonder.

  • Dr. Bodnar came to the ceremony

  • and she explained that she grew up in Ukraine.

  • She was one of the doctors who treated victims

  • of the Chernobyl power plant meltdown.

  • And they later discovered that

  • a lot of the worst medical problems

  • came from the particles people breathed in.

  • So she was always thinking after that

  • about could there be some simple mask

  • that was available everywhere when the unexpected happens.

  • Years later, she moved to America.

  • She had a baby,

  • One day she looked, and on the floor,

  • her infant son had picked up her bra,

  • and had her bra on his face.

  • And that's where the idea came from.

  • She came to the Ig Nobel ceremony

  • with the first prototype of the bra

  • and she demonstrated:

  • (Laughter) (Applause)