2017 Ig Nobel Prizes
Research involving coffee’s movement when people walk backward, the diet of the hairy-legged vampire bat, and whether cats can be considered liquid or solid took home top honors at the 27th Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. The delightfully dubious distinctions, which “honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think,” were awarded on Sept. 14 at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre. The ceremony was put on by mirthful maestro Marc Abrahams and the whimsical wits of the Annals of Improbable Research.
The Ig Nobel committee didn’t award a Chemistry Prize this year, but the research that earned the Fluid Dynamics Prize included the prized chemical caffeine. Jiwon Han was a high school student at the Korean Minjok Leadership Academy when he did his Ig Nobel-winning work on the dynamics of liquid sloshing (Achiev. Life Sci. 2016, DOI: 10.1016/j.als.2016.05.009). His goal? To find out exactly what happens when a person walks backward while carrying a cup of coffee. Turns out coffee tends to spill less when it’s held by someone walking backward. However, Han notes, walking backward “drastically increases the chances of tripping on a stone or crashing into a passing-by colleague who may also be walking backwards,” both of which would lead to spillage.
Study of another beloved chemical—human hemoglobin—took home the Nutrition Prize. Enrico Bernard and coworkers at the Federal University of Pernambuco identified DNA fragments associated with human blood in the feces of hairy-legged vampire bats (Acta Chiropterologica 2016, DOI: 10.3161/15081109ACC2016.18.2.017. The bats appear to have developed a taste for people in the absence of avian prey.
Solid or liquid? Scientists have asked this question about glass, oobleck, and now, cats. University of Lyon’s Marc-Antoine Fardin won the Physics Prize for using fluid dynamics to determine the true state of matter of a feline. In his paper in the July 2014, issue of the Rheology Bulletin, Fardin concludes, “Much more work remains ahead, but cats are proving to be a rich model system for rheological research.”
People who have sleep apnea and snore may find some relief by taking up the didgeridoo (BMJ 2005, DOI: 10.1136/bmj.38705.470590.55). This finding won a Swiss team (and a didgeridoo instructor) this year’s Peace Prize.
Matthew Rockloff and Nancy Greer of Central Queensland University claimed the Ig Nobel for Economics for their experiments assessing people’s willingness to gamble after holding a meter-long crocodile. People who had negative feelings after holding the croc tended to bet less than non-croc-holding controls, while people who had no negative impacts from croc handling placed higher bets (J. Gambl. Stud. 2010, DOI: 10.1007/s10899-009-9174-4).
The Anatomy Prize went to James Heathcote of South View Surgery, in the U.K., for his landmark paper, “Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?” (BMJ 1995, DOI: 10.1136/bmj.311.7021.1668). Heathcote didn’t really answer the question posed in the title of his paper, but he did verify that our ears grow as we age, on average by 0.22 mm per year.
A team led by Hokkaido University’s Kazunori Yoshizawa took home the Biology Prize for the discovery of a female penis and a male vagina in a cave insect from the genus Neotrogla (Curr. Biol. 2014, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.03.022). Their recorded acceptance speech was filmed in a cave.
The Medicine Prize went to a team led by University of Lyon’s Jean-Pierre Royet “for using advanced brain-scanning technology to measure the extent to which some people are disgusted by cheese” (Front. Hum. Neurosci. 2016, DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2016.00511).
University of Rome’s Matteo Martini and coworkers claimed the Cognition Prize for their discovery that most identical twins aren’t very good at differentiating themselves from their twins in photographs (PLOS One 2015, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0120900).
And finally, scientists in Spain won the Obstetrics Ig Nobel “for showing that a developing fetus responds more strongly to music that is played electromechanically inside the mother’s vagina than to music that is played electromechanically on the mother’s belly” (Ultrasound 2015, DOI: 10.1177/1742271X15609367). The finding has even been turned into a device known as the Babypod (Spanish patent ES2546919B1).
The Ig Nobel ceremony can be viewed in its entirety at youtube.com/improbableresearch, and National Public Radio’s “Science Friday” will air an edited recording of the ceremony on the day after U.S. Thanksgiving.
Bethany Halford wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.