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2023 Ig Nobel Prizes

by Bethany Halford
September 15, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 31


2023 Ig Nobel Prizes

A scientist who likes to lick rocks, researchers who reanimated dead spiders, and the inventor of a smart toilet garnered awards at the 33rd Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. The humorous honors, which are given for “achievements that first make people LAUGH, and then THINK,” were presented during a virtual celebration Sept. 14. The satirical magazine Annals of Improbable Research produced the event, and its editor, Marc Abrahams, a commander of comedy, served as master of ceremonies.

Side view of a person putting their tongue on a rock.
Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN
Sampling stones: Chemistry and Geology Ig Nobelist says licking rocks reveals details invisible to the naked eye.

This year’s Chemistry Prize and Geology Prize were awarded jointly to the University of Leicester’s Jan Zalasiewicz for his work explaining why scientists like to lick rocks in the essay “Eating Fossils,” which appeared in the Nov. 2017 issue of the Palaeontology Newsletter. Licking a rock is an important technique, Zalasiewicz writes. “Wetting the surface allows fossil and mineral textures to stand out sharply, rather than being lost in the blur of intersecting micro- reflections and micro-refractions that come out of a dry surface.”

Rice University researchers led by Daniel J. Preston won the Mechanical Engineering Prize “for re-animating dead spiders to use as mechanical gripping tools.” In one experiment that would terrify any arachnophobe, they used the reanimated spider to pick up another spider (Adv. Sci. 2022, DOI: 10.1002/advs.202201174).

Seung-min Park of the Stanford University School of Medicine took home the Public Health Prize for his work on the Stanford toilet, “a device that uses a variety of technologies—including a urinalysis dipstick test strip, a computer vision system for defecation analysis, an anal-print sensor paired with an identification camera, and a telecommunications link—to monitor and quickly analyze the substances that humans excrete.” The committee cited several of Park’s publications, with the most recent from Science Translational Medicine (2023, DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.abk3489).

Déjà vu is an oddly familiar phenomenon, but the study of the opposite experience—jamais vu, when something frequently experienced becomes foreign—won this year’s Literature Prize. A team led by Chris J. A. Moulin at the University of Grenoble Alps had subjects copy words like “door,” “money,” and “drink” over and over again until the participants felt peculiar (Memory 2020, DOI: 10.1080/09658211.2020.1727519).

The Communication Prize went to a team led by Adolfo M. García of the University of San Andres “for studying the mental activities of people who are expert at speaking backward” (Sci. Rep. 2020, DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-67551-z).

A team from the University of California, Irvine, claimed the Medicine Prize “for using cadavers to explore whether there is an equal number of hairs in each of a person’s two nostrils.” The researchers counted and measured nose hairs in 20 cadavers. They found about 120 hairs per nostril ranging from 0.81 to 1.035 cm in length (J. Am. Acad. Dermatol. 2020, DOI: 10.1016/j.jaad.2020.06.902).

A hand holding aloft chopticks struck by a lightning bolt.
Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN
Charged taste: Adding a zap to chopticks enhances the gustatory experience, according to the winners of the Nutrition Prize.

Meiji University scientists Homei Miyashita and Hiromi Nakamura garnered the Nutrition Prize “for experiments to determine how electrified chopsticks and drinking straws can change the taste of food.” They presented their results at the 2nd Augmented Human International Conference, in March 2011 (DOI: 10.1145/1959826.1959860).

Boredom begets boredom—or so say researchers, led by the University of Hong Kong’s Christian S. Chan, who received the Education Prize for their work “methodically studying the boredom of teachers and students” (Brit. J. Ed. Psychol. 2022, DOI: 10.1111/bjep.12549).

Stanley Milgram, Leonard Bickman, and Lawrence Berkowitz were recognized with the Psychology Prize for a study done in 1969, when they were at the City University of New York. The trio conducted “experiments on a city street to see how many passersby stop to look upward when they see strangers looking upward” (J. Personality Social Psychol., DOI: 10.1037/h0028070).

A school of small, silver fish.
Credit: Shutterstock
Mixing it up: The Physics Prize was awarded to scientists who studied how spawning anchovies stir ocean water.

And finally, the Physics Prize went to a team led by the University of Southampton’s Bieito Fernández Castro “for measuring the extent to which ocean-water mixing is affected by the sexual activity of anchovies” (Nat. Geosci. 2022, DOI: 10.1038/s41561-022-00916-3).

A recording of the Ig Nobel ceremony will be available at National Public Radio’s Science Friday will air an edited recording of it Nov. 24, the day after US Thanksgiving.

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