Rubber ducks

Constipated scorpions and love at first sight inspire winners of Ig Nobels

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The sex lives of constipated scorpions, cute ducklings with an innate sense of physics, and a life-size rubber moose proved the inspiration for the winners of this year’s Ig Nobels, the awards for comical - but well-intentioned - scientific achievement.

The winners at the 32nd annual Ig Nobels ceremony - held a few weeks before the actual Nobel prizes are announced - were celebrated virtually via a webcast on the Annals of Improbable Research magazine’s website, in light of ongoing Covid considerations. Previous Ig Nobel award ceremonies had been held in person at Harvard University.

The winners, honoured in 10 categories, also included scientists who found that when people on a blind date are attracted to each other their heart rates synchronise, and researchers who looked at why legal documents can be so utterly baffling, even to lawyers themselves.

In keeping with Ig Nobel tradition, real Nobel laureates handed out this year's prizes, deploying video trickery to give a sense of the traditional person-to-person interaction. Each Nobel laureate handed a prize off screen, with the winners reaching out to 'accept' the prize, bringing an award statue that they had been sent and self-assembled into view on their screen.

The winners also received a virtually worthless Zimbabwean 10 trillion dollar bill.

This year's winners include:

  • Get your ducks in a row

“Science is fun. My sort of a tagline is you’re not doing science if you’re not having fun,” said Frank Fish, a biology professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, who shared the physics Ig Nobel for studying why ducklings follow their mothers in single-file formation. It's about energy conservation, he explained, the ducklings are drafting, much like stock cars, cyclists and runners do in a race.

“It all has to do with the flow that occurs behind that leading organism and the way that moving in formation can actually be an energetic benefit,” said the appropriately named Mr Fish, whose specialty is studying how animals swim.

Fish shared the prize with researchers at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, who found that the ducklings actually surf in their mother’s wake.

  • Love at first sight?

Eliska Prochazkova’s personal experiences inspired research on dating that earned her and colleagues the cardiology Ig Nobel. She had no problems finding her apparent perfect match on dating apps, yet she often found there was no spark when they met face-to-face.

Prochazkova set people up on blind dates in real social settings, measured their physiological reactions and found that the heart rates of people attracted to each other synchronised.

Pondering whether her work is evidence of love at first sight, Prochazkovaa, a researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands, said: “It really depends, on how you define love. What we found in our research was that people were able to decide whether they want to date their partner very quickly.

“Within the first two seconds of the date, the participants made a very complex idea about the human sitting in front of them.”

  • A cruel sting

Solimary Garcia-Hernandez and Glauco Machado, of the University of São Paulo in Brazil, won the biology Ig Nobel for studying whether constipation ruins a scorpion’s sex life.

Scorpions can detach a body part to escape a predator – a process called autotomy. However, when they lose their tails, they also lose the last portion of the digestive tract, which leads to constipation and, eventually, death, they wrote in the journal Integrated Zoology.

“The long-term decrease in the locomotor performance of autotomised males may impair mate searching,” they wrote.

  • That’s a moose, dummy

Magnus Gers won the safety engineering Ig Nobel for making a moose 'crash test dummy' for his master’s thesis at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, which was published by the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute.

Frequent moose and vehicle collisions on Sweden’s roads can result in injuries and death to both human and animal, Gers said. Yet carmakers rarely include animal crashes in their safety testing.

“I believe this is a fascinating and still very unexplored area that deserves all the attention it can get,” he said. “This topic is mystical, life threatening and more relevant than ever.”

  • Can you speak legalese?

Anyone who has ever read a terms of service agreement knows that legal documents can be incomprehensible.

That frustrated Eric Martinez, a graduate student in the brain and cognitive science department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who also has a law degree from Harvard.

Along with Francis Mollica and Edward Gibson, he shared the literature Ig Nobel for analysing what makes legal documents unnecessarily difficult to understand, research that appeared in the journal Cognition.

“Ultimately, there’s kind of a hope that lawyers will think a little more with the reader in mind,” he said. “Clarity doesn’t just benefit the layperson, it also benefits lawyers.”

While the Ig Nobel awards can often seem amusing, even frivolous, the professional research behind each submission has serious scientific merit and intent.

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