Anti-hijacker trap door among loony Ig Nobel prizes

Also honored: research into the beer-goggle effect, walking on lunar water, and the probability of cows lying down.

Tim Hornyak
Crave freelancer Tim Hornyak is the author of "Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots." He has been writing about Japanese culture and technology for a decade. E-mail Tim.
Tim Hornyak
3 min read
Anti-hijacker trap door
Ig Nobel prize winner Gustano Pizzo's 1970s patent drawing describes how hijackers can be trapped and ejected from airplanes. USPTO

November, 1972. Unto this world, two great things were born. One: your humble scribe; two: Gustano A. Pizzo's Anti-hijacking System for Aircraft, an insane system of trap doors on commercial planes to capture and eject terrorists.

Until now, the latter lived in obscurity as U.S. patent No. 3,811,643, its genius ignored by the world. But it has finally received what it so richly deserves: an Ig Nobel prize.

Handed out at Harvard University by the Annals of Improbable Research, the annual spoof Nobels honor "achievements that first make people laugh, then make them think." In an appropriately silly word, it's jocoserious.

"An anti-hijacking system for an airplane to be operated during flight," reads Pizzo's patent, filed in 1972 and awarded two years later.

"A partition or barrier located immediately aft of the pilots cabin is adapted to be raised dividing the aft section longitudinally into port and starboard areas, the floors of which are dropped on command to lower the hijacker into a capsule in the belly of the plane. The capsule is releasable through opened bomb bay doors having attached thereto a parachute for safely returning the hijacker within the capsule to earth."

Got that? So planes would be equipped with trap doors, bomb bay doors, and parachute-equipped hijacker bags to foil attempts at commandeering them.

The scheme may seem a tad less nuts considering the spate of aircraft hijackings that hit the U.S. in the late '60s and early '70s, including the notoriously successful 1971 skyjacking by D.B. Cooper, who completely disappeared after parachuting from a Boeing 727 with $200,000 in ransom money. The case remains unsolved.

Pizzo's unlikely contraption was recognized in the "safety engineering" category. The other prize winners were no less bizarre.

A group of Japanese and Chinese researchers took the medicine prize "for assessing the effect of listening to opera, on heart transplant patients who are mice."

The psychology award went to a European team that explored the phenomenon of beer goggles. Their self-explanatory study, from the British Journal of Psychology: "Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beer Holder: People Who Think They Are Drunk Also Think They Are Attractive."

Water-walking in low gravity
Alberto Minetti and colleagues tried to emulate how lizards can walk on water, concluding that humans can too in low gravity. PloS One

Alberto Minetti and Yuri Ivanenko attended the ceremony to claim the physics prize. Along with colleagues, they reported in the journal PLoS One that some people would actually be able to run across the surface of a body of water in a low-gravity environment such as the moon. Regardless of the apparent lack of bodies of water on the moon, they conclude that "the maximum body mass compatible with running on water, at the gravity of the moon and at a stride frequency of 1.7Hz, is 73 kg."

Brian Crandall and Peter Stahl snagged the archeology prize "for parboiling a dead shrew, and then swallowing the shrew without chewing, and then carefully examining everything excreted during subsequent days -- all so they could see which bones would dissolve inside the human digestive system, and which bones would not."

Now that takes guts.

Other research honored with an Ig included an investigation into how dung beetles navigate by the Milky Way, how an enzyme in onions makes people cry, the probability with which cows lie down after standing, and work by a Thai group for its 1983 study entitled "Surgical Management of an Epidemic of Penile Amputations in Siam."

Last but not least, Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus since 1994, was honored with the prestigious peace prize for outlawing clapping in public. Sharing the award was the Belarus State Police "for arresting a one-armed man for applauding."