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Singapore Math

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Ig Nobel Prizes in Mathematics

We don't have a Nobel Prize in Mathematics, and a number of hypotheses have been put forward to rationalize why Mr. Alfred Nobel didn't see fit to award such a coveted prize to the mathematical fraternity.

The closest (or an equivalent) to a Nobel Prize in Mathematics is the Fields Medal, officially known as the International Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics, which is granted every four years to between two and four mathematicians for outstanding or groundbreaking research. 

Traditionally given to mathematicians under the age of 40, Fields medalists receive an honorable Can$15,000, an amount probably sufficient enough to defray the cost of their airfare and accommodation should they decide not to channel their winnings to some charitable organization.

Ig(noble) Nobel Prize in Mathematics 

For the majority of mathematicians who can't be nominated for a Fields medal, because they're not born with the "mathematical gene," there's still an infinitesimal hope that some may be awarded an Ig Nobel in Mathematics.

The Ig Nobel Prizes are an American parody of the Nobel Prizes and are given each year in early October for ten unusual achievements in scientific research. The prizes are to "honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think." 

These highly-coveted prizes are awarded in many categories, including the Nobel Prize categories of physics, chemistry, physiology/medicine, literature, and peace, but also other categories such as public health, engineering, biology, and interdisciplinary research.

Organized by the scientific humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), these awards are presented by a group that includes Nobel Laureates at a ceremony at Harvard University's Sanders Theater, and they are followed by a set of public lectures by the winners at MIT.

Ig Nobel Laureates

Let's look at some past Ig Nobel winners in Mathematics, Probability, or Statistics.  

The Ups and Downs of Cows
2013 Probability Prize
Bert Tolkamp, Marie Haskell, Fritha Langford, David Roberts, and Colin Morgan, from the UK, for making two related discoveries:
1. The longer a cow has been lying down, the more likely that cow will soon stand up.
2. Once a cow stands up, you can't easily predict how soon that cow will lie down again.

The End of the World
2011 Mathematics Prize 
Dorothy Martin of the USA (who predicted the world would end in 1954), Pat Robertson of the USA (who predicted the world would end in 1982), Elizabeth Clare Prophet of the USA (who predicted the world would end in 1990), Lee Jang Rim of Korea (who predicted the world would end in 1992), Credonia Mwerinde of Uganda (who predicted the world would end in 1999), and Harold Camping of the USA (who predicted the world would end on September 6, 1994 and later predicted that the world will end on October 21, 2011), for teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations.

The Hundred Trillion Dollar Book 
2009 Mathematics Prize
Gideon Gono, the governor of Zimbabwe's Reserve Bank until 2013, for giving people a simple, everyday way to cope with a wide range of numbers—from the very small to the very big—by having his bank print bank notes with denominations ranging from one cent ($.01) to one hundred trillion dollars ($100,000,000,000,000).

The Number of Shots
2006 Mathematics Prize 
Nic Svenson and Piers Barnes of the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organization, for calculating the number of photographs you must take to (almost) ensure that nobody in a group photo will have their eyes closed.

Elephantine Surface Area
2002 Mathematics Prize
K.P. Streekumar and the late G. Nirmalan of Kerala Agricultural University, India, for their analytical report, "Estimation of the Total Surface Area in Indian Elephants."  

No winners from 1999 to 2001.

Private Dimensions
1998 Statistics Prize
Jerald Bain of Mt. Sinai Hospital in Toronto, and Kerry Siminoski of the University of Alberta, for their carefully measured report, "The Relationship Among Height, Penile Length, and Foot Size."

No winners from 1995 to 1997.

Who Are Going to Hell?
1994 Mathematics Prize
The Southern Baptist Church of Alabama, mathematical measurers of morality, for their county-by-county estimate of how many Alabama citizens will go to Hell if they don't repent.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the Antichrist
1993 Mathematics Prize
Robert Faid of Greenville, South Carolina, far-sighted and faithful seer of statistics, for calculating the exact odds (710,609,175,188,282,000 to 1) that Mikhail Gorbachev is the Antichrist.

Note: In 1990 Mikhail Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

No winners in 1991 and 1992.

If you think that academic papers are darn boring, The Best of Annals of Improbable Research would dismiss that!

Research Topics for an Ig Nobel Prize Award

Let me end with some improbable or irreproducible research topics you may consider brainstorming with your team members. Who knows? You may end up getting nominated for an Ig Nobel Prize in Mathematics, Probability, or Statistics; and with some luck, even be a future Ig Nobel Laureate.

Why Singapore Math Is Russian in Origin

The Golden Ratio and Orgasm

How to Pray to a Black Hole

Deifying Primes and Matrices

Schizophrenia and Sudoku

Gambling May Prolong Your Life

The Secret Life of Pi

Vampire Literature: A Catalyst to Topological Insights

The Sound of e

Origami Pride

Pirate Math 

A Calculus of Corruption

101 Uses of the Golden Mean

The Freudian Meaning of Sexy Primes

A Fourier Analysis of the Singapore Math Syndrome

^O? ^0? ^o?

Another first for Singapore!

A little-known factoid is that former Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, won the 1994 Ig Nobel Prize in Psychologyfor his thirty-year study of the effects of punishing three million citizens of Singapore whenever they spat, chewed gum, or fed pigeons.

Call for Submissions 
Know of any improbable research, email it to

E-mail your Ig Nobel Nominations to

Visit the Annals of Improbable Research Web site.


Abrahams, M. (2012). This is improbable: Chesse string theory, magnetic chickens, and other WTF research. Oxford: Oneworld Publications.

Abrahams, M. (2002). The Ig Nobel Prizes: The Annals of Improbable Research. New York: Dutton.

Abrahams, M. (ed.) (1998). The Best of Annals of Improbable Research. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company.

Scherr, G. H. & Glenn, J. (eds.) (1997). The Journal of Irreproducible Results II. New York: Barnes & Noble Books.

You'll have a heck of a good time reading the papers gracing the pages of the Journal of Irreproducible Results!

© Yan Kow Cheong, October 15, 2013.