Ig Nobel Prizes – Chemistry

The ‘coolness’ rating of Chemistry has skyrocketed in recent years.

Pioneered by Bryan Cranston playing Walter White on our television screens in the hit series ‘Breaking Bad’, there seemed to be an incredible peak in interest in the field. The series was so successful that it spanned 5 seasons and inspired another spin-off show, and is still relevant in current culture.

As Breaking Bad doesn’t look set for another season any time soon (no spoilers here, don’t worry) who now carries the torch as ‘Coolest Chemist’?

A Quick Reminder – What are the Ig-Nobel Prizes?   

If you have read any of our previous articles about the Ig-Nobel Prizes – you can skip this section! If, however, you have never heard of this award ceremony then keep reading for a quick introduction.  

The Ig Nobel Prizes were set up to honour those people and projects that make people laugh, then think. The prizes are handed out for the weird, the imaginative, the unusual – anything that can spur people’s interest in science, medicine or technology. Usually, the ceremony is held every September as a gala-type event in Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre. Unfortunately, in a Covid blighted world this was not possible so the entire event was streamed online.   

It is possible to watch the full event for free by clicking here. Previous ceremonies have had the prizes presented to recipients by Nobel Laureates in front of the massed 1100 spectators. Thousands more watch along online.   

The Chemistry Prize – Background

The Chemistry prize this year was awarded to a large team of scientists from Germany, UK, New Zealand, Greece, Cyprus, and Austria (Jörg Wicker, Nicolas Krauter, Bettina Derstroff, Christof Stönner, Efstratios Bourtsoukidis, Achim Edtbauer, Jochen Wulf, Thomas Klüpfel, Stefan Kramer, and Jonathan Williams). If you would like to watch the presentation of the prize, the time-stamp to navigate to is 24:33.

The prize was awarded for research chemically analysing the air inside movie theatres to test whether the odours produced by an audience reliably indicate the levels of violence, drug use, sex, bad language, and antisocial behaviour in the movie that is being watched.

Humans are known to emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) through both breath and skin, with the rate and nature of these emissions being changed by various factors. In the context of this study – emotional state while watching a movie will cause a measurable change in VOC emission. 

Previous studies of VOCs and Carbon Dioxide in cinemas have shown that certain chemicals are emitted by audiences in reaction to certain events in the movie being watched. By taking data from films with a variety of age classifications – the relationship between VOC emissions, Carbon Dioxide, and age classification was studied in the aspiration to develop a new chemical-based objective film classification method.

A Brief Explanation of the Methodology

For the purpose of this article, the methodology and findings of the research paper have been simplified. If you would like to read the full paper then you can find a link here: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0203044

For this award winning research, the experiments were conducted in two different screening rooms of a Cinestar multiplex Cinema in Mainz, Germany.  Data was gathered over roughly four-week periods in the Winters of 2013/2014 and 2015/2016 – totalling eight weeks of measurement.

Figure 1. Table of movies screened, separated into four separate age recommendation classes and with total number of screenings

Eleven different movies were shown over this eight-week period in 135 different screenings (Figure 1.). The films were categorised by the German film classification system age recommendation, with FSK meaning ‘voluntary self-regulation’. The movies from each age recommendation class were attended by roughly the same amount of people.

The German rating system was used to separate films into five different categories – unrestricted movies are classed as ‘FSK 0’, films for 6-years and over as ‘FSK 6’, films for 12-years and over as ‘FSK 12’, films for 16-years and over as ‘FSK 16’, and films with only adults allowed as ‘FSK 18’. Over the course of the experiment no films with the highest age-rating of FSK 18 were screened at the cinema which is why it is not included.

The rooms in which the movies were shown held approximately the same capacity, 237 and 227 seats in each. Importantly, the size of the screening rooms was 6500m3 for both – each flushed continuously with 1300 m3/h of fresh air from outside. The air from inside the screening rooms exited through a 75x75cm stainless steel ventilation shaft which was then measured in a separate technical room with both a CO2 analyser and PTR-TOF-MS (Proton Transfer Reaction Time-Of-Flight Mass Spectrometer).

The Results of The Chemistry Prize

The results indicate that most VOCs were not able to predict all of the age classifications reliably – which is likely a reflection of the fact that current classifications of movies are based on the perceived sensibilities to a variety of factors rather than visceral biological responses observed in the data. Examples of these factors are things like antisocial behaviour, drug use, bad language, sex, and violence.

It is not all bad news, however, as isoprene was found to be a promising avenue for exploration. The predictive powers of isoprene for age classification were shown to be successful for 0, 6, and 12 age classifications across a variety of genres and audience age groups.

This points towards the possibility of measuring isoprene emissions per person as an age classification aid for classification boards, or even offering an objective rating system for films based on the chemical reactions of large groups of people

Some of the Most Controversial Age Ratings

Everyone has those movies that leave a resounding impact on them due to incredible imagery, beautiful storylines, immersive dialogue, or non-stop action.

However, for some people the movies that lodge themselves deeply into their memories are the ones that are unexpectedly crude, scary, or violent. Essentially – when ratings agencies get it horrifically wrong. In the spirit of this, here are some of the most controversially rated movies of recent times that have attracted more than their fair share of complaints;

  • Crash (1996)
  • The Dark Knight (2008)
  • Jack Reacher (2013)
  • Minions (2015)
  • Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
  • Paddington (2014)
  • Spectre (2015)
  • Spider Man (2002)
  • Watership Down (1978)
  • The Woman In Black (2012)