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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.

Amusing Monday: Odd research is recognized with Ig Nobel Prizes

Two researchers were awarded a less-then-noble prize for discovering — and reporting — that objects look different if you turn around, bend over and look at them through your legs.

Atsuki Higashiyama demonstrates his research at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremonies at Harvard University on Thursday. Photo: Michael Dwyer, Associated Press
Atsuki Higashiyama demonstrates his research at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremonies at Harvard University last Thursday. // Photo: Michael Dwyer, Associated Press

It’s all a matter of how one perceives the world — and perception seemed to be the accidental theme during last week’s 26th annual Ig Nobel Prize awards ceremony.

While one study asked research subjects to make observations while mooning the world, a market-research project called for people to ascribe human personalities to a variety of rocks, as an exercise in branding. And then there was the man who went to great lengths to become a goat — or at least replicate the experience of a ruminant four-legged animal with a stinky beard.

Two weeks before some of the best researchers in the world are honored with Nobel Prizes, an organization called Improbable Research tries to bring a smile to people’s faces by handing out prizes meant to “honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.” The ceremonies were Thursday at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

Two Japanese researchers, Atsuki Higashiyama and Kohei Adachi, received the Ig Nobel Prize in Perception for collecting data about between-legs viewing. In accepting the prize, Higashiyama demonstrated the head-down posture for the audience, then explained, “When the viewer is inverted, the objects appear smaller than in a normal upright position.”

Before he was done with his acceptance speech, three human “alarm clocks” began singing their alarm song and escorted the researcher away for exceeding his allotted one-minute time limit.

Thomas Thwaites takes to the stage in his goat apparatus to receive the Ig Nobel Prize in biology from Nobel laureate Eric Maskin. Photo: Michael Dwyer, Associated Press
Thomas Thwaites takes to the stage in his goat apparatus to receive the Ig Nobel Prize in biology.
Photo: Michael Dwyer, Associated Press

The concept of viewing things in unusual positions has been around for a century. The best explanation is that people are so accustomed to seeing things with their heads upright that the brain cannot provide a realistic picture when the head and eyes are upside down and backwards.

Here is a description of the findings from the actual research report, titled “Perceived size and perceived distance of targets viewed from between the legs: Evidence for proprioceptive theory”:

“In between-leg observation, since the retinal image is formed on a site that differs from the usual site of stimulation and the trunk is in a position that differs from its usual upright position, it is difficult for some observers to maintain the habit of seeing the world stably.”

The two researchers and their Ig Nobel Award were featured in The Japan Times.

The Ig Nobel Prize for Economics was awarded to Mark Avis, Sarah Forbes, and Shelagh Ferguson for assessing the perceived personalities of rocks. Here is the script the researchers read to their test subjects:

“We would like you to think of each rock as if it were a person. This may sound unusual, but think of the set of human characteristics associated with each rock. If you see a descriptor and you have no sense of how it applies to the rock, look at the rock picture again and think of it as if it were a person.”

The researchers were testing the theory that people perceive objects as having personalities and that these personalities can be categorized in five different ways — the “brand personality five-factor model,” or BPFFM. I should mention that these researchers seemed skeptical at the outset, and they eventually arrived at this conclusion:

“The fact that participants were able to assign distinct personalities to each rock can therefore only be reasonably explained as an artifact of the research methodology… Rocks were found to have a personality simply because participants were asked to perceive one, and the only explanation of this finding is that the BPFFM therefore ‘creates’ personality.” See “The brand personality of rocks: A critical evaluation of a brand personality scale” (subscription).

The goat man, Thomas Thwaites, has received the majority of media attention, most coming before the recent Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. I guess you can call it scientific research, but it appears to be mainly a stunt for his latest book, “Goat Man: How I took a holiday from being human.” Still, his endeavor, which involved prosthetic goat legs and other strange elements, was so impressive that he was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in Biology.

“Human life can just be so difficult,” Thwaites told National Public Radio’s Scott Simon. “And you look at a goat and it’s just, you know, it’s free. It doesn’t have any concerns.”

He discussed his thoughts about eating grass:

“I made this kind of bag that I had strapped to my body, and I could take a mouthful of grass and then chew it up and then spit it into this bag. And this bag … was intended to be my artificial rumen with the goat bacteria in it. But I just really didn’t fancy getting diarrhea for the rest of my life so I ended up having to pressure (cook) what I spat into this bag and made a weird delicious, disgusting grass stew.”

Thwaites shared the prize in biology with another researcher, Charles Foster, who lived in the wild at various times as a badger, an otter, a deer, a fox and a bird.

The full Ig Nobel Prize ceremony can be viewed in this video. Here are the other prizes awarded this year:

Medicine Prize: In another study of perceptions, German researchers discovered that if you have an itch on the left side of your body, you can relieve it by looking into a mirror and scratching the right side of your body (and vice versa). See “Itch Relief by Mirror Scratching: A psychophysical study” by Christoph Helmchen, Carina Palzer, Thomas F. Münte, Silke Anders and Andreas Sprenger

Psychology Prize: An international group of researchers was honored for their study about lying. As described by the Ig Nobel Committee, the researchers asked a thousand liars how often they lie and then tried to decide whether to believe those answers. The research report, “From junior to senior Pinocchio: A cross-sectional lifespan investigation of deception,” found that “lying proficiency improved during childhood, excelled in young adulthood and worsened through adulthood. Likewise, lying frequency increased in childhood, peaked in adolescence, and decreased during adulthood.”

Peace Prize: The Ig Nobel Committee cited only the title of the scholarly study by Canadian researchers: “On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bulls–t.” In the study, human subjects were presented with statements consisting of randomly organized buzzwords that had syntactical structure but no discernible meaning. They found that “some people are more receptive to this type of bulls–t and that detecting it is not merely a matter of indiscriminate skepticism but rather a discernment of deceptive vagueness in otherwise impressive sounding claims.” Tania Lombrozo, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, writes a commentary on the subject for NPR, “What Makes People Susceptible To Pseudo-Profound ‘Baloney’?”

Reproduction Prize: The late Ahmed Shafik was recognized for his research involving rats wearing pants. The professor at Cairo University in Egypt, who died in 2007, crafted little trousers out of polyester, cotton and wool and studied the rats’ sex lives. He found that rats that wore polyester were less likely to be successful in their quest for sexual companions. He suggested that the effect, which could apply to humans, was caused by an electrostatic charge that developed on polyester fabric.

Chemistry Prize: Volkswagen, the German car manufacturer, was acknowledged for solving the problem of excessive automobile pollution. (Did this company really need more attention?) The invention, which was actually deployed on real cars, was innovative software that caused vehicle emissions to automatically produce fewer emissions when cars were put through testing procedures.

Literature Prize: Fredrik Sjöberg of Sweden was honored for his three-volume autobiographical work about the pleasures of collecting flies that are dead, and flies that are not yet dead. NPR interviewed this man with a most impressive collection of hoverflies in an article titled “The Uppermost Aristocracy of the Hoverfly Society.”

Physics Prize: Separate research teams investigated why white-haired horses are more horsefly-proof and why dragonflies are fatally attracted to black tombstones. Both studies demonstrated the effects of polarized and nonpolarized light. Check out “An Unexpected Advantage of Whiteness in Horses: The Most Horsefly-Proof Horse Has a Depolarizing White Coat” along with “Ecological Traps for Dragonflies in a Cemetery…”

Amusing Monday: Odd research may actually benefit mankind

When a group of physicists put their minds to working on the subject of urination, they discovered that mammals of all sizes take about the same amount of time to pee.

It’s a matter of fluid mechanics, and it turns out that mammals above 3 kilograms in weight — from dogs to elephants — empty their bladders in 21 seconds, give or take 13 seconds. Small mammals are hindered by high viscous and capillary forces that limit their rate of flow, while large mammals benefit from bigger pipes and gravity that helps flush out larger volumes of urine in a short time.

It’s amazing to think that scientists actually pursued this question, but the researchers insist that the results may have practical use in the field of urology.

Meanwhile, the oddity of the subject earned the researchers from Georgia Tech an Ig Nobel Prize, an award that honors the best research that “makes people laugh and then think.” The awards ceremony, held Sept. 17 at Harvard University, honored 10 groups of researchers from throughout the world. The prize, a mainstay of the website “Improbable Research,” is a play on the word “ignoble,” which means either humble or dishonorable.

The following are the other awards presented this year. For specifics, see “Winners of the Ig Nobel Prize.”

Chemistry Prize: Researchers identified a process for “partially unboiling an egg.” When I first heard this, I found it incredible, but it apparently is true. It has to do with the way long protein chains can alter their functional state by the way they fold back on themselves. The process offers a method to produce certain medicines at much less cost. For a good explanation, check out the video on this page or read the story by Summer Ash on the MSNBC website.

Literature Prize: Linguistic experts looked the world over and found that almost every language has an utterance like the English “huh?” — and the meanings are all about the same. See the second video on this page.

Management Prize: According to new research, many business leaders developed a fondness for risk-taking early in their lives after surviving natural disasters — such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and wildlifes — with no dire consequences to their lives.

Economics Prize: The award went to the Bangkok Metropolitan Police for offering to pay police officers cash bonuses if they refuse to take bribes.

Medicine Prize: Two research groups working in various parts of the world discovered from experiments that intense kissing and other intimate activities produce biomedical consequences, such as reduced allergic response.

Mathematics Prize: A group of European scientists used mathematical techniques to figure out how Mouley Ismael, the bloodthirsty Sharifian emperor of Morocco, managed to father 888 children from 1697 to 1727.

Biology Prize: By attaching a weighted stick to the tail of a chicken, researchers discovered that the chicken walks in a way similar to how dinosaurs may have walked.

Diagnostic Prize: It turns out that speed bumps make a good tool for diagnosing acute appendicitis. The deciding factor is how much pain a person feels while driving over speed bumps that jostle their insides.

Physiology and Entomology Prize: The prize was awarded jointly to two individuals who laid their bodies on the line for science. Justin Schmidt developed the Schmidt Sting Pain Index to rate the relative pain people feel when stung by various insects. Michael L. Smith allowed bees to sting him on 25 different locations on his body to identify the least painful spots (skull, middle toe tip and upper arm) and most painful (nostril, upper lip and penis).

The awards ceremony, which is long but contains plenty of light moments, can be viewed in the video below. Another ongoing website about odd and unusual studies is “Seriously, Science?” which I discussed in Water Ways about a year ago.