Ig Nobel Prizes 2017 celebrate the quirkiest of research and technology
Image credit: Reuters/Gretchen Ertl
Prizes were awarded for study of cheese-related disgust, the effect of crocodile-handling, and the discovery of female penises and male vaginas in cave insects in the 27th Ig Nobel Prize ceremony.
The Ig Nobel Prizes – a spoof of the Nobel Prizes – were founded by Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbably Research. Every year, ten awards in different categories are given to people 0 (not necessarily researchers) who have produced work to “first make people laugh, and then make them think.”
“We hope that this will get people back into the habit they probably had when they were kids of paying attention to odd things and holding out for a moment and deciding whether they are good or bad only after they have a chance to think,” Abrahams said.
While most prizes are won for what could be considered irrelevant research or useless ideas, Abraham has long argued that the prizewinning projects are creative and thought-provoking.
“They are unusual approaches to things,” he said. “It would be difficult for some people to decide whether they are important or the opposite. If you had sleep apnea for a long time, the didgeridoo thing would sound quite intriguing.”
One former Ig Nobel Prize winner, Professor Andre Geim of the University of Manchester, who was awarded the prize in 2000 for the magnetic levitation of a frog, went on to also win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010, for his work on graphene. Professor Geim is the only person to have won both prizes.
The ceremony itself is an extravaganza of silliness, with absurd performances, costumes and speeches. It was held at the Sander’s Theatre at Harvard University, with prizes awarded by Nobel Laureates.
There was an opening performance by the Boston Typewriter Orchestra, which was performed entirely on typewriters, a performance of the satirical “The Incompetence Opera”, and a series of 24-second lectures on Ig Nobel Prize-winning topics such as sheep-dragging and sponges. A child, “Miss Sweetie Poo”, performed as the ceremony’s timekeeper, standing on stage and shouting “I’m bored” to indicate when an acceptance speech had continued for too long.
This year, the majority of awards were focused on the life sciences, and most prizes went to university researchers.
Medicine: A team of five French researchers were honoured for their work using cutting-edge fMRI technology to investigate the extent to which some people are disgusted by cheese.
Obstetrics: A Spanish team were awarded this prize for creating the Babypod, the “musical tampon”. This speaker can be placed inside the womb of a pregnant woman to play music, and is marketed as being able to create a stronger mother-foetus response. This was based on research by the team which found that foetuses respond more strongly to music played through the vagina than on the belly.
Physics: The prize went to Marc-Antoine Fardin, for his study, “On the Rheology of Cats”, which was inspired by popular photos of cats on the internet seeming to change their shape to fit inside tight spaces. Using mathematical modelling, he concluded that older, lazier cats were less capable of holding their shape (more liquid-like) than healthy young cats.
“I propose here to check if [the claim that cats are liquid] is solid, by using the tools of modern rheology,” he wrote in a paper filled with pictures of cats squeezed into awkwardly-shaped vessels.
Nutrition: A Brazil-based team were awarded the prize for the first scientific study of human blood in the diet of the hairy-legged vampire bat.
Cognition: London-based psychologist Matteo Martini, covering his face with a flat mask, accepted his Ig Nobel prize for “Is That Me or My Twin? Lack of Self-Face Recognition Advantage in Identical Twins”, which demonstrated that it was common for identical twins to fail to distinguish between each other in photographs.
Biology: A small international team accepted their prize, awarded for their discovery of cave insects of the genus Neotrogla which have acquired male vaginas and female penises.
Peace: The international team behind the study: “Didgeridoo playing as alternative treatment for obstructive sleep apnea syndrome: randomised controlled trial” won this prize. They found that playing the instrument could offer some benefit to people trying to stop snoring, due to the daily practice of blowing improving the strength of their respiratory system.
The announcement of this prize was accompanied with a demonstration from digeridoo instructor Alex Suarez.
Economics: Matthew Rockloff and Nancy Greer won for a project in which addicted and non-addicted gamblers were required to handle a metre-long crocodile before playing a simulated slot machine game. They found that problem gamblers were not reined in by their close encounter with the beast, and actually placed higher bets, interpreting the experience as a sign that they were on a lucky streak.
Anatomy: James Heathcote, a British GP, received the prize for explaining why we believe elderly men to have large ears. According to this research, while our ears tend to grow about 2mm every decade after the age of 30, men’s ears appear larger due to typical men’s haircuts being shorter than women’s. As Dr Heathcote received his prize, attendees – including Nobel laureates – were given large plastic ears to wear.
Fluid Dynamics: Jiwon Han of South Korea received this prize for studying the movement of coffee when a person carries it while walking backwards: the “Coffee Spilling Phenomena”. Han demonstrated his findings – that we are more likely to spill coffee when walking backwards with it – on stage during the ceremony, holding a disposable cup of coffee.
While winners of the Nobel Prize are awarded $1,000,000 (£740,0000) in prize money, winners of the Ig Nobel Prize are awarded $10 trillion in Zimbabwean dollars, which are effectively worthless.