Terrorist trap doors, no-cry onions, and other funny research from the Ig Nobels

September 13, 2013
September 13, 2013

This year’s Ig Nobel prizes were awarded on Sept. 12 at a meeting of nerds at Harvard University. The prizes are given for genuine scientific research that “first makes people laugh and then makes them think.”

So, at first glance, the research may strike you as somewhat baffling, surreal or even downright ridiculous. But science is rarely frivolous. None of the experiments awarded an Ig Nobel will have been the result of casual whims or unplanned notions, like the cast of TV series Jackass being set loose in a laboratory. If any of the prize-winning experiments really are “mad”, it is a determined, dedicated, thorough sort of madness that is probably a lot more worrying in the long run.

Like the Nobels, the Ig Nobels are awarded for individual categories.

Medicine

The Ig Nobel for medicine went to Masateru Uchiyama and colleagues for their study which revealed that mice survived much longer after allograft heart transplants if they were made to listen to opera. Allograft transplants make up the bulk of transplant procedures, and immune rejection is always a risk as a result. Anything that can limit this is good. Listening to music might seem like a bizarre angle to look at, but the relationship between body and brain is incredibly complex, so it’s not that outlandish.

Interestingly, mice exposed to Mozart or Enya didn’t show the same effect.

Psychology

The Ig Nobel for psychology went to Laurent Bègue and colleagues, for showing through experiment that drunk people consider themselves more attractive. With alcohol such a common intoxicant the world over, analysis of its effects on human behavior is never not-relevant. People may think it’s obvious that drunk people find themselves more attractive, but that’s never been objectively demonstrated. And with alcohol having so many knock-on effects for society, assessing how it affects people’s behavior is always potentially useful.

This award must be doubly welcome after the original experiment about whether drunk people are more aggressive if you spill their drinks had to be abandoned due to the hospitalization of several post-docs.

Biology and Astronomy

It’s unusual that a science paper combines both biology and astronomy, unless it’s the discovery of alien life, but we’d probably have heard more about that if it had happened.

This Ig Nobel winning study by Marie Dacke and colleagues showed that dung beetles use the Milky Way for navigational orientation. Previously it was believed they use the moon, but this study reveals it’s not just that. Studying how small creatures like the dung beetle function could prove valuable when constructing small robots and similar devices that have to navigate distances. And if these robots are responsible for collecting astronaut poo, then this study will have been doubly useful.

Safety Engineering

The safety engineering prize went to the late Gustavo Pizzo for inventing an elaborate system to foil airline hijackers which involved activating a trapdoor they fall through where they’re sealed in a special container, which is then dropped from the plane (with a parachute) to be collected by pre-warned police on the ground.

Air safety is still a major concern, and attempts to make airlines less vulnerable to hijackers are always going to be important. This “through the trapdoor” method seems designed to be used by planes flown by Bond-like super villains. Follow up studies may look into making it safer to fly planes while stroking a large white cat.

Physics

The prize for physics went to Alberto Minetti and colleagues, for their study showing that some people could run across the surface of a pond, if they and the pond were on the moon. It shows the mechanics by which some creatures like insects can travel across water on Earth seemingly apply to humans and other larger animals, providing the environmental conditions are right.

Water management and fluid dynamics are still a pivotal aspect of science in the modern world, and will presumably be even more so if space colonization takes off. And those scoffing at this research would probably be the first to try running on water if they were ever to get to the moon.

Chemistry

This prize was won by S Imai and colleagues, who showed that the process which makes humans cry when cutting onions is more complex than first thought. The reaction was found to be due to a previously unknown enzyme. If this enzyme could be removed via genetic modification then it could be possible to have normal onions that only make you cry when cutting them if you’re worryingly emotionally attached to vegetables.

Archaeology

Brian Crandal and Peter Stahl were awarded the archaeology prize for swallowing dead shrews whole then examining the excreted matter. This revealed the effects the human digestive system has on small bones and the like. Archaeology is all about studying the past, and one thing humans do leave behind is their waste, so by studying this it could be determined what they ate, where they ate, and other useful info, and this study could help archaeologists know what they’re looking at.

Or maybe it just gets really boring on those digs.

Probability

Bert Tolkamp and colleagues showed that cows are more likely to lie down if they have been standing up for a longer time. Ergo, cows get tired. This could be useful data for the agricultural industry.

This study was chosen ahead of the other favorite, a study titled “The defecation habits of wild bears in areas of high forestation.”

Public Health

Kasian Bhanganada awarded this prize for their investigation into surgical methods to repair penis amputation in Siam, except in situations where the penis has been partially eaten by a duck.

This one is largely self-explanatory. Although it’s worth pointing out that, due to the hand motions involved, “feeding the ducks” is sometimes used as a metaphor for masturbation. It’s possible that someone in Siam may have gotten the wrong idea upon hearing this.

The Ig Nobel prizes provide a valuable service whereby they show that science doesn’t need to be dull and impenetrable in order to be valid. With so much being studied by so many, it’s inevitable that many studies will end up looking a bit bonkers. But what’s wrong with that?

The science is serious, but the appreciation of it doesn’t have to be.

This article was originally published at The Conversation.

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