Amusing Monday: Ig Nobel prizes make us laugh, then think

Roller coasters and kidney stones; voodoo dolls and abusive bosses; and wine with fruit flies were all part of this year’s Ig Nobel Prize ceremony at Harvard University.

The annual ceremony recognizes seemingly off-the-wall research, most of which is published in actual scientific journals. 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.

As usual, the ceremony shows that researchers really do have a sense of humor. This year’s theme was “the heart,” as reflected in a heart trophy and an opera performed during the ceremony. The full show, presented in the video on this page, contains skits, stunts and demonstrations.

I’m always 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.

If any of these research projects stir your curiosity, you can track down the papers through the Ig Nobel Prize website. I will spare you the formal titles of these papers, but they’re on the website with links to the publication where they appeared. In the list below, the times next to the prizes indicate where on the video you can view each announcement of the prize, followed by an acceptance speech and sometimes demonstrations related to the projects.

Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine (14:14) for discovering that roller coaster rides hasten the passage of kidney stones. (One of the authors is from Poulsbo.)

In receiving the prize, Dr. David Wartinger of Michigan State University said the real credit should go to one of his patients, who passed a kidney stone two minutes after getting off the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, a roller coaster ride at Disney World.

“He was so convinced that the ride had caused it that he got back in line and rode it a second time,” Wartinger said during the awards ceremony. “Two minutes after his second ride, he gave birth to kidney stone number 2.”

The follow-up study involved using a device that simulates the human urinary tract. When the device was placed at the front of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, four of 24 kidney stones were dislodged. When the device was placed at the back of the ride, 23 of 26 kidney stones were dislodged.

Wartinger shared the prize with Dr. Marc Mitchell of The Doctors Clinic in Poulsbo.

Ig Nobel Prize in Anthropology (17:07) for finding that, in a zoo, chimpanzees imitate humans about as often — and about as well — as humans imitate chimpanzees.

At the ceremony, Gabriela-Alina Sauciuc reported that two species of apes — humans and chimps — will often “ape” each other in a zoo. The situation is prolonged when either one gets a reaction, demonstrating that mimicking can be a social, as well as a learning, behavior. A film clip shows the process taking place.

Ig Nobel Prize in Biology (24:28) for proving that wine experts can reliably identify by smell the presence of a single fly in a glass of wine.

It is well known that female fruit flies produce pheromones to attract a mate. The research shows that humans are ultra-sensitive to the pheromone and our senses can detect exceeding small amounts of the biological chemical.

“If a female fly is attracted to your glass of wine and drops in, that is very sad for the fly because the fly will drown,” said the author who accepted the prize. “But it is also sad for you, because the pheromone will spoil your wine.”

The ceremony included a demonstration of the phenomenon, with different reactions from four participants.

Ig Nobel Prize in Chemistry (28:01) for measuring the degree to which human saliva is a good cleaning agent for dirty surfaces.

“I know that it seems quite improbable,” said researcher Paula M. S. Romão, “but human saliva is an effective cleaning agent for surfaces like paintings, sculptures or gilded wood. But don’t try to use it on your kitchen counters.”

An on-stage demonstration is included.

Ig Nobel Prize in Medical Education (45:20) for a paper titled “Colonoscopy in the Sitting Position: Lessons Learned From Self-Colonoscopy.”

One of the authors, Akira Horiuchi, came on stage with his endoscope and proceeded to demonstrate the self-procedure with his clothes on. “OK,” he said, “I think this trial may be funny, but I learned many things.” Unfortunately, he ran out of time before he could tell the audience exactly what he learned.

Ig Nobel Prize in Literature (53:07) for learning that most people who use complicated products do not read the instruction manual.

Surveys and studies revealed that people not only fail to read long instruction manuals but they never learn how to use some of the functions of the devices they own. Also, “extraneous features” tend to have a negative effect on people’s experience with such products.

“Reading manuals and accessing online help is sometimes such a bad experience that people would avoid doing it even when they knew they were using the product wrongly and reading a manual would probably help,” said researcher Thea Blackler.

(The audience was then shown a photo of a chair assembled with two legs aiming upward.) The fact that people don’t need excessive features seems obvious to most people, Blackler said, but manufacturers aren’t getting the message.

Ig Nobel Prize in Nutrition (55:28) for finding that the caloric intake from a human-cannibalism diet is significantly lower than the caloric intake from most other traditional meat diets.

“I have to find my speech,” said researcher James Cole, addressing the audience. “Why don’t you chew on something while I find us some food for thought. I really like research that I get sink my teeth into.”

Cole said the role of his research is to understand the complexities of human ancestors, including Neanderthals. Motivations for cannibalism can be complex, he said, ranging from survival to warfare and other considerations.

“It turns out that calorically we’re not that nutritious compared to a horse or a bison or a mammoth, which we know were successfully hunted in the past. We know that Neanderthals … produced art; they have symbolism, jewelry, language, and complex societies … Perhaps we should consider that our ancestors had a greater complex attitude to cannibalism than in the way we do. If we can gain greater understanding into them, we can gain better understanding into ourselves — and isn’t that what science is about and why we’re all here?”

Ig Nobel Peace Prize (1:03:28) for measuring the frequency, motivation, and effects of shouting and cursing while driving an automobile.

Research shows that drivers who frequently express aggression tend to have higher rates of traffic accidents, according to the study. Among these drivers, aggressive behaviors occur during normal traffic conditions. In several countries studied so far, aggressive behaviors can be associated with a lack of driver education. The current study of 1,100 Spanish drivers found that aggressive behaviors, such as shouting and insulting, were not as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol. But some behaviors, such as risky maneuvers of the vehicle, could be considered serious enough for a legal ban.

“Let us also remember that people use cars to make love as well,” quipped researcher Francisco Alonso, “which is clearly better than using them to get us killed.”

Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine (1:13:15) for using postage stamps to test whether the male sexual organ is functioning properly—as described in the study “Nocturnal Penile Tumescence Monitoring With Stamps.”

Sharing the microphone, author physicians John M. Barry, Bruce Blank, Michel Boileau tried to explain their research in simple terms. “We sought to answer Bugs Bunny’s recurrent question: ‘What’s up, Doc?’”

Instead of using expensive equipment to measure erectile function, the three doctors developed an “inexpensive stamp test.” The audience erupted with laughter as suggestive postage stamps were displayed in a slide show.

Ig Nobel Prize in Economics (1:18:37) for investigating whether it is effective for employees to use Voodoo dolls to retaliate against abusive bosses.

“In our work, we wanted to understand why people keep retaliating against their abusive bosses, and we presented them with a voodoo doll to see whether stabbing a voodoo doll made them feel that they’ve retaliated,” said lead researcher Lindie Hanyu Liang.

By focusing their aggressions on a voodoo doll, employees can avoid the destructive consequences of actual retaliation against their bosses. “People actually feel better, that their sense of justice has been restored,” Liang concluded.

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