As the person who is responsible for covering the annual Nobel Prizes in the sciences, it’s always good to get a warning that they’re about to be awarded. For me, that warning is provided by the Annals of Improbable Research, which has spent the last 27 years hosting its First-Annual Ig Nobel Prizes.
Complete with a ceremony that features a mini-opera and a Nobel Prize winner who’s tasked with sweeping paper airplanes off the stage, the awarding is an act of inspired lunacy that’s matched only by the prize-winning research itself. As is typical, this year’s winners are a mix of scientists being goofy, taking scientific methods to unconventional problems, and real scientific questions that have… unconventional consequences. Without further ado, let’s get to them.
Obstetrics: Whose idea was this anyway? Presumably, one of the three Spanish researchers being honored came up with the question that nobody else was asking: would a fetus enjoy music more if it was played in the nearby vagina? To find out, the team played music against the mother’s abdomen and from a speaker inserted in her vagina and compared those to vibrations in the vagina. Though there was no discussion of the mother’s facial expression during the vibrations, the fetus only responded to intravaginal music, though it had to be older and better developed to do so. Naturally, the team patented an intravaginal speaker and has a product on the market.
Biology: There’s at least one insect where the above speaker would be a male-focused product. In most species, males compete for females and evolve an elaborate penis as well as a seminal fluid that transfers nutrients to the female. This year’s biology prize goes to an international team that discovered a species of cave insect where the opposite is true: the female wears the penis in this relationship and transfers nutrients to the males. Bonus weirdness: intercourse can last anywhere between 40 and 70 hours.
The researchers went into the cave in question to record a video acceptance speech among the bugs that won it for them.
Physics: This one went to a researcher who attempted to determine the state of matter of cats. Marc-Antoine Fardin of the Université de Lyon published a paper entitled “On the rheology of cats,” with rheology being the study of how liquids and solids flow and deform. Fardin points out that cats appear solid in many contexts (such as after they’ve been dropped) but flow to conform to many different-shaped containers. Unfortunately, he has concluded that we’ve just not done enough research to come to any firm conclusions: “The wetting and general tribology of cats has not progressed enough to give a definitive answer to the capillary dependence of the feline relaxation time.”
Nutrition: An international team of researchers took home the Ig for their demonstration that human DNA was showing up in the feces of Brazilian vampire bats. The work was prompted by an interesting scientific question: the bats had specialized on feeding on birds in a region where humans and agriculture were taking over, displacing their natural prey. So what were the bats feeding on now? People and chickens is the answer.
Fluid Dynamics: “Although the base frequency of the cup is considerably displaced from the resonance region, maximum spillage is initiated by the second harmonic mode of driving force that the cup exerts on its contents,” reads a sentence from this Ig-Nobel-winning paper. “Thus, we spill coffee.” The paper’s all about how sloshing fluids reach harmonic oscillations in different containers, but it’s cited specifically for figuring out what happens to coffee in a mug when we walk backwards.
Peace: OK, I have no idea why this got honored as Peace, given it involved some noise. Said noise came in the form of didgeridoo playing, which a research team (in Switzerland, of all places) tried out as a treatment for sleep apnea. The logic, presumably, is that playing the didgeridoo involves controlling your breathing, a problem for sleep apnea patients. It seemed to work in that there were fewer incidents of breathing trouble during sleep (though quality of sleep and other health measures didn’t improve). Still, I’m skeptical that the research found the treatment “well accepted by patients.”
Economics: This prize went to an international team that studied the effect of crocodiles on problem gamblers. It turns out that the response depends entirely upon how you feel about crocodiles. If you held one and felt good about it, you were more likely to gamble recklessly afterward. If your response was closer to “I can’t believe I’m holding a one-meter-long crocodile, someone get me out of here,” betting was more restrained afterward.
Anatomy: Each year, The BMJ puts out a Christmas issue that’s filled with whimsical research with the potential for Ig Nobel glory. This year, the honor fell to a paper entitled “Why do old men have big ears?” The study came out of a meeting intended to get doctors practicing general medicine involved in research, during which it was suggested as a potential research topic. But some of the attendees suggested it wasn’t actually true. So, a team followed through, showing pretty conclusively that male ears grow larger at an average rate of 0.22mm a year. The “why” aspect awaits further research.
Medicine: For many people, cheese is the vegetarian version of bacon: there isn’t a meal that can’t be improved by putting cheese on it. So, in an attempt to study some aberrant psychology, a team of French researchers found people who were disgusted by cheese and stuffed them in an MRI tube to see what their brains were up to. Apparently, the brain’s systems for sensing benefits and rewards are heavily involved in being disgusted by cheese.
Cognition: This is a prize that will make those of us who are related to a pair of twins feel better. Researchers have demonstrated that identical twins can’t always tell who they’re looking at when presented with photos of their own face or a photo of their twin’s face. This effect is enhanced when the subject has insecure attachment, which results in a reduced sense of self.