Ig Nobel Prizes 2009: Bar Fights and Tequila Diamonds


WARNING: Professional scientist, do not attempt at home. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I think it's pretty safe to say we're all fans of the Ig Nobel Prizes here at HowStuffWorks.com. For those of you not in the loop, these are the basically the Bizarro World Nobel Prizes, handed out each year by Improbable research magazine to honor the weird, the twisted and the (at times) seemingly pointless studies that pop up in the world of legitimate scientific research.

Yep, while Nobel Prize winners are out there trying to save the world, the Ig Nobel elite may be applying the old scientific method to such quandaries as "do ovulating strippers earn more tips?" Still need a refresher? Well check out "How do the Ig Nobel Prizes work?" or the excellent Stuff You Should Know podcast on the topic.

The 2009 awards went out Oct. 1 and after conferring with co-bloggers Allison Loudermilk, Sarah Dowdey, Chuck Bryant and Josh Clark, we decided to team up to cover all 10 of this year's winners. I thought I'd kick things off with a bar fight.

Granted, I'm not actually the kind of guy to ever wind up in a brawl. Even growing up in the South, I never got to witness the David Cross-hyped spectacle of a redneck bar fight. But I've seen plenty of movies, so like most TV-nursed children of America, I've watched more than my share of beer bottles smashed over human skulls. Even then, I remember my dad informing me that such bottle smashing was actually really dangerous -- could easily kill a man in fact, despite the fact that nearly all cinematic beer bottles seem set to stun.

But if I WERE to wind up fighting for my life in an East Texas roadhouse, which bottle should I choose to smash over the head of my attacker? An empty or an unopened brew? Leave it to science to nail down an answer for us.

Stephan Bolliger, Steffen Ross, Lars Oesterhelweg, Michael Thali and Beat Kneubuehl of the University of Bern, Switzerland published a wonderful study in 2008 titled "Are Full or Empty Beer Bottles Sturdier and Does Their Fracture-Threshold Suffice to Break the Human Skull?" Face it, jocks -- these are five euro nerds you don't want to mess with.

Basically this all comes down to three factors: the dangers of shattering glass versus the blunt force of an unbroken bottle, as well as how the force stacks up against the minimum fracture threshold of the human skull. Instead of testing this method out the old-fashioned way, they used a drop tower. They packed half-liter beer bottles with molding clay to mimic the human skull. Then they dropped steel balls on them.

They discovered that full bottles broke at 30 joules of impact energy, while empty bottles broke at 40 joules. However, a little earlier study using human cadavers revealed that whether empty or full, a beer bottle is far more likely to fracture a human skull than the other way around. So I guess my dad was right: Every time you see a cowboy, biker, beatnik or cyborg smash a bottle over another man's head, you're witnessing what in reality might amount to an act of homicide.

So what was the Swiss study's conclusion? Why, that beer bottles are sufficiently dangerous to merit their exclusion from places where violent conflict might break out. You know, like bars and stuff. And that's why they're YOUR 2009 Ig Nobel Peace Prize winners.

But don't stroll out of the bar just yet. Amid all the pools of blood and shattered glass, you might find a few pools of tequila -- and a possible fortune. Javier Morales, Miguel Apátiga, and Victor M. Castaño of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México won the 2009 Ig Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their 2008 study on how to create diamonds from, you guessed it, good old tequila.

So please, keep all this in mind the next time you watch "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Just how many grievous skull fractures occur in that epic Himalayan bar fight between archeologists, Sherpas and Nazis? And how much of that splattered tequila is just so much squandered gold?

Keep checking back this week for more Ig Nobel posts from Stuff You Should Know's Josh and Chuck, as well as the rest of the ScienceStuff crew. I'll also add links below as they pop up.

Shoot them, shoot them both at HowStuffWorks.com: How do the Ig Nobel Prizes work? Stuff You Should Know: What is an Ig Nobel Prize? How Alcohol Works How Diamonds Work Are there real-life fight clubs?

More Ig Nobel Prizes on the Blogs: Josh Clark on Prawo Jazdy and the state of math in Zimbabwe Sarah Dowdey on the advantages of naming dairy cows Allison Loudermilk on why pregnant ladies walk funny Chuck Bryant on knuckle cracking and gas mask bras


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.