Amusing Monday: Ig Nobel Prizes to make us laugh, then think

Did you know that a cat exhibits properties of both a solid and a liquid, or that a didgeridoo can be a cure for sleep apnea?

I had never even thought of such questions before I reviewed the list of Ig Nobel Prize winners for 2017 and watched last week’s awards ceremony on video.

The Ig Nobel Prize honors real researchers working on subjects that seem off-the-wall. Judges are looking for studies that first make them laugh and then make them think, according to Marc Abrahams, who founded the Ig Nobel awards in 1991. Abrahams, the master of ceremonies, serves as editor of the “Annals of Improbable Research,” a publication that seeks out oddball investigations in science and other fields.

This year’s ceremony, held Thursday at Harvard University, proves that researchers really do have a sense of humor. The theme was “uncertainty.” Between the awards presentations and demonstrations of the research findings, the program contains music, comedy sketches and a coordinated launching of paper airplanes from the audience. All are shown in the 1.5-hour video on this page.

I’m amused by the amount of work that goes into these research projects, many of which have practical, if somewhat obscure, applications to daily life. In fact, one physicist, Russian-born Andre Geim, received an Ig Nobel Prize in 2000 when he showed how to levitate a small frog with magnets, using the magnetic properties of water. He went on to share an actual Nobel Prize 10 years later for discoveries related to graphene, now considered an advanced building material.

Following are the 10 award winners with links to their published findings. Shown in parentheses is the time stamp for the presentation as seen in the YouTube video.

Ig Nobel Prize in Physics (14:00): “On the rheology of cats”

“Are cats a liquid?” asks Marc-Antoine Fardin as he accepted the Ig Nobel Prize. “I saw this question asked on the Internet. It was based on the common definition that a liquid is a material that can adapt its shape to its container.”

Marc proceeded to show pictures of cats snuggled into baskets, jars, vases and other oddly shaped containers, as a liquid would do. His paper, filled with references to fluid dynamics, suggests that a cat at other times has a high viscosity and a low affinity to adhere to containers — especially those filled with water — thus behaving more like a solid.

Ig Nobel Peace Prize (16:40): “Didgeridoo Playing as Alternative Treatment for Obstructive Sleep Apnoea Syndrome”

Researchers realized they were onto something when a didgeridoo instructor reported that his students were less sleepy during the day and snored less at night after playing the didgeridoo for several months. Careful studies showed that the effect was real. The researchers surmised that tightening the muscles of the upper airways may increase dilation and improve air flow during sleep, thus reducing snoring and bringing greater peace to other occupants of the bed.

Ig Nobel Prize in Economics (29:30): “Never Smile at a Crocodile: Betting on Electronic Gaming Machines is Intensified by Reptile-Induced Arousal”

Two Australian researchers asked visitors going through a crocodile farm whether they would be willing to hold a 1-meter-long crocodile and then participate in a survey. People with gambling problems tended to place higher bets after holding a crocodile. One exception was among those who were in a negative mood, in which case they tended to bet less than those who didn’t hold a crocodile. The study supports the idea that emotions — not logic — drive the gambling impulse.

Ig Nobel Prize in Anatomy (33:35): “Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?”

During a discussion among 19 British doctors, the group wanted to find a way to encourage other doctors to conduct basic research. One doctor threw out the question: “Why do old men have big ears?” Others doubted the basis of the question, and a new study was born. It doesn’t seem that the question of why was answered, but the award recipient, James Heathcote, reported that, on average, men’s ears grow by 2 millimeters each decade.

Ig Nobel Prize in Biology (46:20): “Female Penis, Male Vagina and Their Correlated Evolution in a Cave Insect”

In a strange evolutionary process, females of the genus Neotrogia have developed a penislike organ to hold tight to males, while the males lack an external organ for transferring sperm. The recipients of the award were unable to attend the ceremony, but they sent along a video recorded in a cave where the insects were discovered.

Ig Nobel Prize in Fluid Dynamics (52:40): “A Study on the Coffee Spilling Phenomena in the Low Impulse Regime”

In a report about the sloshing effects within a coffee cup, wine glass and other vessels, Jiwon Han of South Korea found that a person is less likely to spill his coffee while walking backward, although that method also increases the risk of tripping. Another strategy is to hold the cup by its rim rather than its handle — or one can just put a lid over the top. Note: Jiwon was a high school student when he wrote the paper.

Ig Nobel Prize in Nutrition (55:25): “What is for Dinner? First Report of Human Blood in the Diet of the Hairy-Legged Vampire Bat Diphylla ecaudata”

Three species of bats are known to consume only blood for their food supply. One species, which was thought to take blood from only wild birds, was found to consume the blood of domestic chickens and even humans when their normal food supplies ran low. The research opens the door to public health concerns in the Caatinga forests of Northeastern Brazil, where the bats were found.

Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine (1:03:35): “The Neural Bases of Disgust for Cheese: An fMRI Study”

Researchers in France discovered that a higher percentage of people are disgusted by cheese than by any another other type of food. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), they were able to identify the location in the brain that becomes stimulated by the disgusting cheese among those who don’t like cheese, whereas the same effect on the brain is not seen among those who like to eat cheese.

Ig Nobel Prize in Congnition (1:10:45): “Is That Me or My Twin? Lack of Self-Face Recognition Advantage in Identical Twins”

While most people can easily recognize their own face compared to any others, an identical twin does not favor his or her own face over that of the twin. Twins recognize their own face and their twin’s equally well. But, oddly enough, they were more likely to be confused between pictures of themselves and their twins when they felt anxious or self-conscious.

Ig Nobel Prize in Obstetrics (1:14:20): “Fetal Facial Expression in Response to Intravaginal Music Emission”

Playing music to an unborn fetus may result in varying responses. But this study found that when the music is played through a speaker placed in the vagina, the effect is greater than when the speaker is placed on the abdomen. More than 100 women went through the procedure, which included an ultrasound image of the fetus. Even at 16 weeks gestation, those receiving the music through the vagina were far more likely to respond with mouth and tongue movements than those hearing via the abdomen.

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