Science can be a funny way to make a living, with the profession full of oddball characters. It seems only right that the bizarre, the absurd and the obsessive in science and medicine should be celebrated every so often. And so the Ig Nobel prizes were created to honour genuine scientific research which “makes you laugh and then makes you think”.
The 23rd First Annual Ig Nobel ceremony was held on Thursday and this crop of winners were as good as any in glittering annals of the awards. Here’s a quick glance at this year’s gongs.
This prize went to a paper in the British Journal of Psychology which confirmed what every nightclub denizen has known for decades: people rate their own personal attractiveness more highly when they have been drinking. Think of the beer goggles being on inside out.
What elevates this to an Ig Nobel winner though, is that in the second experiment, the researchers fooled a group of the participants into believing they were drinking alcohol when they weren’t. I love their deadpan conclusion:
Results showed that participants who thought they had consumed alcohol gave themselves more positive self-evaluations. But ratings from independent judges showed that this boost in self-evaluation was unrelated to actual performance.
The Medical Ig completely and forever debunks the idea that serious researchers are not interested in pursuing flaky complementary therapy-style ideas, and will search anywhere for workable ideas to test.
A team from Japan showed that mice with transplanted hearts had longer survival of the graft if they were exposed to Verdi’s La Traviata than Mozart or Enya.
I would have liked to have seen a group of mice exposed to my Auntie Marie’s vinyl copy of 20 Greatest Country Heartbreakers to see if it actually does what it says on the cover!
Joint biology and astronomy
This instant classic generated a bit of buzz when it was published during the year. A combined Swedish/South African group discovered that dung beetles actually rely on the Milky Way to steer their balls of poo in straight lines. Not convinced? Read the paper and you’ll see a beautifully thought-through experiment which explains the hypothesis.
I’d love to have been there to hear the researchers asking the planetarium manager to let them have faecal-sphere rolling competitions under the dome. As Oscar Wilde might have put it,
We are all piling up scat in the dung pile, but some of us are looking at the stars.
If you’re eating or about to have a snack, you might want to skip this next bit. The winning abstract puts it succinctly enough:
This study describes the results of an experiment involving the consumption of a skinned, eviscerated, and segmented insectivore by an adult human male.
For some vaguely archaeological reason Brian Crandall and Peter Stahl wanted to know what human digestion does to the bones of small insectivores on the way through the gut. Clearly not the types to merely speculate without any data points, they followed the venerable scientific path of icky self-experimentation.
They got a dead shrew which they skinned, gutted, boiled and cut into bits. They then swallowed the bits whole to avoid the confounding influence of chewing on the bone breaking patterns.
If you’re still reading at this point, you deserve to know how this story ends. They examined their excrement and retrieved the bones which they then compared to archaeological specimens of digested shrew skeletons. The sum of human scientific knowledge was thus added to in a way nobody else had quite gotten around to.
Ig Nobel Peace Prize
This went to the totalitarian President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko who banned public applause after activists were using mass clap-ins to protest his dictatorial regime (slogans and verbal protests having long since been made verboten).
The Belarus secret police raised the situation beyond Kafkaesque to Ig Nobel levels of absurdity, by arresting a one-armed man and charging him with applauding in public. Buddhists around the world were gutted that none of the witnesses could tell the court what it sounded like.
The public health prize went to a team of Thai surgeons for an older paper published in 1983. I’m going to leave you to read up about the whole paper in detail if you want (perhaps not at work, be warned) but I think the quote below perfectly sums up the spirit of the awards.
As a public health response to an epidemic of vengeful wives going the full Lorena Bobbitt on their menfolk in the late 1970s, they wrote up some surgical techniques for penile reattachment operations. They reported good results apart from some particular circumstances which had a poorer outcome.
Which ones didn’t do so well? I’ll give you the quote straight out of the original paper
We believe that penile reimplantation should be successful regardless of the method of anastomosis, provided that the amputated part is not mutilated, decomposed, or partially eaten by a duck.
If parts of your job this week seem odd, pointless or futile, spare some pity for this year’s Ig Nobel winners – and at least you don’t have to chow down on a small mammal.