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Ig Nobel prizes 2014: from Jesus on toast to baby faeces in sausages

Lord Toast. Catarina Mota, CC BY-NC-SA

Ig Nobel prizes 2014: from Jesus on toast to baby faeces in sausages

The 24th Ig Nobel prizes were announced on September 18. The prizes annually award scientific research that “first makes people laugh and then makes them think.”

The ceremony was food-themed including competitions such as Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobel-Laureate Contest. The awards for individual categories were presented at Harvard University by “a group of genuine, genuinely bemused Nobel Laureates.” And the winners are:

Physics

The prize went to Kiyoshi Mabuchi of Kitasato University for his work “measuring 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”. Also tested were apple peels and orange skin – found to be less dangerous. Apparently the banana peels form a sugary gel under pressure that makes them more slippery. No humans were injured during the experiment.

Psychology

Creatures of the night are, on average, “more self-admiring, more manipulative and more psychopathic” than people who habitually wake up early in the morning, according to Peter Jonason of the University of Western Sydney and colleagues. More specifically, the team showed that people with the Dark Triad set of personality traits – narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism – would do well after dark, because people would generally pay less attention to their manipulations.

Public health

Researchers from US, India, Japan and Czech Republic shared the prize “for investigating whether it was mentally hazardous for a human being to own a cat.” Cats rule the internet, but these researchers revealed that owning a pet cat is associated with some personality changes, including lowering intelligence in men and feeling less guilt in women. Two different teams won this prize. One focused on a cat-borne parasite that can infect humans and is known to manipulate the behaviour of its victims; the second looked at whether depression correlated with being bitten by cats.

Neuroscience

Kang Lee at the University of Toronto and colleagues bagged the neuroscience prize “for trying to understand what happens in the brains of people who see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast.” Their results show that this behaviour is quite normal: the human brain is wired to quickly recognise faces in things with slight suggestions of one, no matter whether they are on a dog’s behind or on a naan bread. To find the regions of the brain involved in this, the researchers created a bunch of images of random noise, stuffed participants in an MRI tube, and told them that half of the images contained a face (they did a separate study where they were told they contained a letter). Over a third of the time, the subjects thought they saw a face.

Biology

After more than 5,000 observations, Vlastimil Hart of Czech University of Life Sciences and colleagues found that dogs prefer to align themselves to the Earth’s north-south magnetic field while urinating and defecating. Its nomination in the Ig Nobel’s was probably expected as soon as the paper was published. The researchers concluded that their findings forced “biologists and physicians to seriously reconsider effects magnetic storms might pose on organisms.” And no doubt those who have to clean up after them.

Art

The aesthetics of paintings have been a subject of interest for scholars for hundreds of years. Now Marina de Tommaso of the University of Bari and her colleagues have won the Ig Nobel prize for getting quantitative about it. They prize was given “for measuring the relative pain people suffer while looking at an ugly painting, rather than a pretty painting, while being shot [in the hand] by a powerful laser beam”. They found that the perception of pain can be changed based on the aesthetic content of the painting. Technically, however, they couldn’t tell whether the art was altering the perception of the pain from the laser, or if the pain was an additive effect of looking at a painfully ugly piece of art while the laser was on.

Medicine

Sonal Saraiya of Michigan State University and her colleagues won the Ig Nobel prize in medicine for developing nasal tampons made from bacon. Their use is specifically for Glanzmann Thrombasthenia, a blood disorder which can lead to “uncontrollable nosebleeds.”

Arctic Science

Reindeer aren’t safe in Norway. Eigel Reimers and Sindre Eftestøl of the University of Oslo noticed that polar bears were stalking them. To find out whether the reindeer were able to respond to the threat from bears, Reimers and Eftestøl had people approach the reindeer. To make the experimental and control groups as similar as possible, they got some humans to dress in polar bear costumes. The results showed that reindeers ran twice the distance when they saw a person in a polar bear costume.

Nutrition

When you think of healthy eating, you probably don’t think of sausages. But that may change, thanks to the amazing power of baby poop. With noses held tight, a team of medical researchers obtained bacteria from the faeces of infants, then tested which ones could both help to ferment sausages and also pass through the stomach to take up residence in the guts. Their finding could ultimately lead to probiotic sausages.

While the world loves the Ig Nobels, not all scientists take it in the same spirit.
Peter Stahl, from the University of Victoria and a previous prizewinner, said there was a session at the end of the event where researchers are able to discuss the scientific aspects of their work. “But they could do a lot more to give people the context in which the science being mocked was done,” Stahl said.

Harry Flint, from the University of Aberdeen, said a certain amount of negativity was attached to the prize and the hard work by scientists. “Most scientists won’t want to be an award winner of the Ig Nobel Prize,” he said.