Each September since 1991, the scientific community have gathered to celebrate the obscure, strange and sometimes just the pure weird. Organised by the Annals of improbable research, the Ig Nobel awards recognizes that while some discoveries may at first appear trivial, you can never quite know where they might one day lead.
Traditionally the prizes have no set categories, ranging from the more common place, such as Peace and Medicine, to the somewhat more niche, such as the Fluid Dynamics prize. However, just because the categories may be more familiar, it doesn’t make the winning research any more ordinary. For instance, this year’s winner of the of the Peace Prize demonstrated that regular playing of a didgeridoo is an effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea and snoring. The recipient, Milo Puhan, suggested in his research paper published in the British Medical Journal that this may be as a result of a strengthening of the tongue muscles and the reduction of “fat pads” in the throat. In his acceptance speech pointed out that previous winners have gone on to win the clearly lesser coveted Nobel award, adding that the president of his university was particularly excited about that fact.
While at first, this kind of research may appear humorous, since the paper’s publication, one of its authors has switched career to work full-time as a therapeutic didgeridoo instructor and has already trained around 2,500 patients.
Other notable recipients include Marc-Antone Fardin who posed the age-old question, how fluid is a cat. Fardins study published in the Rheology Bulletin in 2014 speculated on the “Deborah number” which is used to measure the fluidity of materials. Essentially, it is the amount of time it would take a material to flow under certain conditions, such as an angled surface.
The ceremony also recognized Jean-Pierre Royet for his work which identified the area of the brain associated with disgust in cheese. In their study published in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, Jean-Pierre and his team studied the cerebral processes of food aversion using fMRI, a technique that allows for the real-time study of the brain by measuring the change in blood flow to parts of the brain. They found that regions of the brain in the basal ganglia were more activated in participants who disliked cheese.
Other winners for this year include a GP from the UK, who received the anatomy prize for solving the riddle of why old men have such large ears (you can blame gravity for that), and a study conducted by a Korean student into the dynamics of liquid-sloshing, to learn what happens when a person walks backwards while carrying a cup of coffee.
The 27th annual Ig Nobel award ceremony itself took place at Theater at Harvard University with the usual degree of tradition and chaos. These include the throwing of paper planes onto the stage and booing if acceptance speeches go on too long (coordinated by the 8 year old, miss Sweetie Poo). According to the Ig Nobels founder and master of ceremonies, the awards, while at first may seem a joke, they are there to “first make people laugh, and then make them think”.
Previous awards have been given for the answering “Why pregnant women don’t tip over”, showing that there is an universal law of urination, and that naming cows increases their yield of milk.
The sky is truly the limit.
The full list of this year’s prize winners:
PHYSICS PRIZE [FRANCE, SINGAPORE, USA] — Marc-Antoine Fardin, for using fluid dynamics to probe the question “Can a Cat Be Both a Solid and a Liquid?”
“On the Rheology of Cats,” Marc-Antoine Fardin, Rheology Bulletin, vol. 83, 2, July 2014, pp. 16-17 and 30.
PEACE PRIZE [SWITZERLAND, CANADA, THE NETHERLANDS, USA] — Milo Puhan, Alex Suarez, Christian Lo Cascio, Alfred Zahn, Markus Heitz, and Otto Braendli, for demonstrating that regular playing of a didgeridoo is an effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea and snoring.
“Didgeridoo Playing as Alternative Treatment for Obstructive Sleep Apnoea Syndrome: Randomised Controlled Trial,” Milo A. Puhan, Alex Suarez, Christian Lo Cascio, Alfred Zahn, Markus Heitz and Otto Braendli, BMJ, vol. 332 December 2006.
ECONOMICS PRIZE [AUSTRALIA, USA] — Matthew Rockloff and Nancy Greer, for their experiments to see how contact with a live crocodile affects a person’s willingness to gamble.
Never Smile at a Crocodile: Betting on Electronic Gaming Machines is Intensified by Reptile-Induced Arousal,” Matthew J. Rockloff and Nancy Greer, Journal of Gambling Studies, vol. 26, no. 4, December 2010, pp. 571-81.
ANATOMY PRIZE [UK] — James Heathcote, for his medical research study “Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?”
“Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?” James A. Heathcote, British Medical Journal, vol. 311, 1995, p. 1668.
BIOLOGY PRIZE [JAPAN, BRAZIL, SWITZERLAND] — Kazunori Yoshizawa, Rodrigo Ferreira, Yoshitaka Kamimura, and Charles Lienhard, for their discovery of a female penis, and a male vagina, in a cave insect.
“Female Penis, Male Vagina and Their Correlated Evolution in a Cave Insect,” Kazunori Yoshizawa, Rodrigo L. Ferreira, Yoshitaka Kamimura, Charles Lienhard, Current Biology, vol. 24, no. 9, 2014, pp. 1006-1010.
FLUID DYNAMICS PRIZE [SOUTH KOREA, USA] — Jiwon Han, for studying the dynamics of liquid-sloshing, to learn what happens when a person walks backwards while carrying a cup of coffee. REFERENCE: “A Study on the Coffee Spilling Phenomena in the Low Impulse Regime,” Jiwon Han, Achievements in the Life Sciences, vol. 10, no. 1, 2016, pp. 87-101.
NUTRITION PRIZE [BRAZIL, CANADA, SPAIN] — Fernanda Ito, Enrico Bernard, and Rodrigo Torres, for the first scientific report of human blood in the diet of the hairy-legged vampire bat
“What is for Dinner? First Report of Human Blood in the Diet of the Hairy-Legged Vampire Bat Diphylla ecaudata,” Fernanda Ito, Enrico Bernard, and Rodrigo A. Torres, Acta Chiropterologica, vol. 18, no. 2, December 2016, pp. 509-515.
MEDICINE PRIZE [FRANCE, UK] — Jean-Pierre Royet, David Meunier, Nicolas Torquet, Anne-Marie Mouly and Tao Jiang, for using advanced brain-scanning technology to measure the extent to which some people are disgusted by cheese.
“The Neural Bases of Disgust for Cheese: An fMRI Study,” Jean-Pierre Royet, David Meunier, Nicolas Torquet, Anne-Marie Mouly and Tao Jiang, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, vol. 10, October 2016, article 511.
COGNITION PRIZE [ITALY, SPAIN, UK] — Matteo Martini, Ilaria Bufalari, Maria Antonietta Stazi, and Salvatore Maria Aglioti, for demonstrating that many identical twins cannot tell themselves apart visually.
“Is That Me or My Twin? Lack of Self-Face Recognition Advantage in Identical Twins,” Matteo Martini, Ilaria Bufalari, Maria Antonietta Stazi, Salvatore Maria Aglioti, PLoS ONE, vol. 10, no. 4, 2015: e0120900.
OBSTETRICS PRIZE — [SPAIN] — Marisa López-Teijón, Álex García-Faura, Alberto Prats-Galino, and Luis Pallarés Aniorte, for showing that a developing human fetus responds more strongly to music that is played electromechanically inside the mother’s vagina than to music that is played electromechanically on the mother’s belly.
“Fetal Facial Expression in Response to Intravaginal Music Emission,” Marisa López-Teijón, Álex García-Faura, and Alberto Prats-Galino, Ultrasound, November 2015, vol. 23, no. 4, pp. 216–223.
“Fetal Acoustic Stimulation Device,” patent ES2546919B1, granted September 29, 2015 to Luis y Pallarés Aniorte and Maria Luisa López-Teijón Pérez.
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