Tag Archives: Ig Nobel Prize

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 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.

Amusing Monday: Studies that tickle the funny bone

Did you know that if you eat dinner with an overweight person, you are likely to eat more food. But if you eat with a slim person, you are likely to eat less?

Did you know that if you swear out loud after stubbing your toe or striking your finger with a hammer, that your swearing can actually reduce your perception of the pain?

Did you know that if you watch a funny movie with a group of friends, the movie will seem funnier than if you watch the movie alone? That may seem obvious, since people tend to react to each other. But did you know that the same movie can seem funnier even if your friends are watching the movie somewhere else, such as a place where you cannot see or hear them?

These are apparently the findings of real scientific studies, as reported by “Seriously, Science?” a blog on Discover magazine’s website. Finding such oddly revealing — and sometimes seemingly silly — research studies was the idea of Meredith Carpenter and Lillian Fritz-Laylin, two biologists who studied at the University of California, Berkeley. The blog was originally titled “NCBI ROFL,” for National Clearinghouse for Biotechnology Information – Rolling on the Floor Laughing.

The blog originally had more of a satiric edge, poking fun at some of the research topics. (Sex and bodily functions are frequent themes.) We are left to wonder who is coming up with these ideas — and who is paying to carry out this research.

Like most satires, “Seriously, Science?” looks for the humorous side of the work, generally ignoring any real value the studies may have.

“Some studies that sound funny do have a valid purpose in a specific field that may not be obvious to an outsider looking in,” Carpenter told Kim Carollo, a reporter for ABC News.

Fritz-Laylin recalled a research project designed to find out what happens to the human foot if it gets run over by a car.

“They took a bunch of feet from cadavers, put them in shoes and rolled over them,” Fritz-Laylin told Carollo. “It’s useful to find out about that, but it’s mind-boggling to imagine them setting it up.”

The video on this page shows Carpenter and Fritz-Laylin in a five-minute talk for Ignite, which has the motto, “Enlighten us, but make it quick.” We see them here in 2011 putting on a slide show describing 20 of their favorite research findings.

If you’d like to read more about the three studies mentioned at the top: 1) Dining with heavyweights, 2) swearing at pain and 3) watching comedies

On a related note, the Ig Nobel Prizes were awarded a couple weeks ago (Sept. 18) at Harvard University. The 10 prizes in various fields are deemed to be the best research that “makes people laugh and then think,” as outlined by the website “Improbable Research.” The website contains ongoing reports of humorous and oddball studies, including some rather elaborate discussions as only real scientists can do. The Ig Nobel prize is a play on the word ignoble, which means either humble or dishonorable.

You can read about this year’s winners of the Ig Nobel Prizes on the Winners Page. The second video on this blog entry, though long, is rather amusing, as many of the Ig Nobel Prize winners explain the importance of their research. The presenters of the awards are none other than genuine Nobel Laureates who have come to enjoy the fun. Here is a quick description of the various projects:

PHYSICS: Researchers measured the amount of friction between a shoe and a banana skin, and between a banana skin and the floor, when a person steps on a banana skin that’s on the floor.

PSYCHOLOGY: Researchers amassed evidence showing that people who habitually stay up late are, on average, more self-admiring, more manipulative, and more psychopathic than early-risers.

PUBLIC HEALTH: Researchers investigated whether it is mentally hazardous for a human being to own a cat.

BIOLOGY: Researchers carefully documented that when dogs defecate and urinate, they prefer to align their body axis with Earth’s north-south geomagnetic field lines.

ART: Researchers measured the relative pain people suffer while looking at an ugly painting, compared to a pretty painting, while being shot in the hand by a powerful laser beam.

ECONOMICS: The prize went to the Italian government’s National Institute of Statistics, which proudly stepped up to fulfill a European Union mandate requiring each country to increase the official size of its national economy by including revenues from prostitution, illegal drug sales, smuggling, and all other unlawful financial transactions between willing participants.

MEDICINE: Researchers promoted a method of treating “uncontrollable” nosebleeds with nasal packing, using strips of cured pork.

ARCTIC SCIENCE: Researchers tested the reactions of reindeer when confronted by humans disguised as polar bears.

NUTRITION: The title of the research paper speaks for itself: “Characterization of Lactic Acid Bacteria Isolated from Infant Faeces as Potential Probiotic Starter Cultures for Fermented Sausages.”

If you find these amusing, you can read about previous Ig Nobel Prize winners on the Winners Page, following this year’s winners.