Would you eat sausage made with bacteria from dirty diapers? Do you fear your cat is making you depressed? Did the “Grilled Cheesus” episode of “Glee” make you wonder whether Finn had lost his marbles?
Scientists have done the research and produced answers to these questions – and plenty more like them. Their work was celebrated Thursday night at the 24th installment of the Ig Nobel Prizes.
The ceremony at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre honored dozens of scientists whose research may not win a Nobel Prize but still proves that no question is too trivial to benefit from rigorous analytical scrutiny. (And speaking of Nobel Prizes, four bonafide Nobel laureates were on hand to give out the awards.)
Here are this year’s winners:
PHYSICS: Can you really slip and fall by stepping on a banana peel? Yes indeed, and a team of health and medical researchers from Kitasato University in Japan has done the calculations to prove it. The peels of a dozen Cavendish bananas were tested five times each, yielding 60 data points. Stepping on a banana peel releases a gel from the “follicles of banana skin,” and the coefficient of sliding friction plummets to the point that it’s comparable to the slipperiness of skis on snow. “The lubricating ability of banana skin can be proved excellent,” the team reported in Tribology Online. (Apple peels and lemon peels didn’t even come close.)
NEUROSCIENCE: What is going on in the brain of a person who claims to see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast? Such “sightings” of nonexistent faces happen often enough that scientists have a name for it: face pareidolia. In a study published in the journal Cortex, researchers from China and Canada showed volunteers a series of “pure-noise images” and told them that half of them actually were pictures of either faces or letters. And indeed, the volunteers said they saw faces 34% of the time and letters 38% of the time. The researchers discovered that the frontal and occipitotemporal regions of our brains contain a “network” specially equipped to see nonexistent faces.
PSYCHOLOGY: Beware of those who stay up late. Cheaters are more likely to operate at night than to be early risers, according to researchers from England and Australia. By operating in conditions of “low light” and “limited monitoring,” cheaters have an easier time victimizing their prey – especially if their targets are morning people who aren’t in top cognitive shape as their early bedtimes approach. A study of 263 real people found a correlation between those who were night owls and those who scored high for “narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism” – a trio of traits they called the “Dark Triad.” Their results were published in the journal Cortex.
PUBLIC HEALTH: A slew of researchers were recognized for their efforts to highlight the dangers of living with cats. Why is this dangerous? Because their poop contains a wily parasite called Toxoplasma gondii that’s been linked with schizophrenia, suicidal behavior and brain cancer in humans. In the three studies recognized with Ig Nobels, researchers found that healthy women who carried the parasite were less likely to feel guilt but perhaps more likely to be tense, impatient and overwrought; that healthy men with the parasite had lower IQs, less education, and were less likely to engage in novelty-seeking behavior than their uninfected counterparts; and that victims of cat bites are more vulnerable to depression than victims of dog bites.
MEDICINE: For people with Glanzmann thrombasthenia, a nosebleed can be fatal. Such bleeding is usually treated with procedures that block blood vessels, medicines to stimulate blood clotting, laser treatments, blood transfusions and lots of gauze, to name a few examples. But doctors from Michigan State University presented a case report of a 4-year-old girl whose nosebleeds were bad enough to land her in the pediatric ICU. On her fifth day in the hospital, doctors ditched the gauze and instead packed her nostrils with “nasal tampons” made of “cured salted pork” measuring 3.5 centimeters long. The procedure “successfully stopped nasal hemorrhage promptly, effectively, and without sequelae,” or complications, according to a report in Annals of Otolaryngology, Rhinology & Laryngology. It worked so well that doctors repeated it when the patient returned to the hospital a month later. The use of salt pork to treat nosebleeds goes back to the 1800s, the doctors noted.
BIOLOGY: Dogs can sense the Earth’s magnetic field, and they prove it by aligning their bodies along a north-south axis when they poop. At least, they do so when the magnetic field is stable (i.e., not disrupted by a solar storm), according to a group of researchers from Germany and the Czech Republic. Their report, published in Frontiers in Zoology, included data on 1,893 dumps taken by 70 dogs representing 37 breeds. (Members of this same research group previously demonstrated that cows can sense magnetic fields by studying images from Google Earth.)
ART: These Italian winners produced evidence that admission to art museums should be covered by health insurance. A dozen volunteers were subjected to painful laser beams. Later, they endured those same laser beams while looking at paintings they thought were beautiful, so-so or ugly. Sure enough, gazing at a beautiful painting seemed to distract the volunteers from their pain. In their brains, there were measurable changes in the anterior cingulate cortex, according to a study in the journal Consciousness and Cognition.
ECONOMICS: This award also went to the out-of-the-box thinkers in Italy’s National Institute of Statistics. They found a simple way to make their national economy bigger – by including the dollar value of illegal drug sales, smuggling, prostitution and other “unlawful financial transactions between willing participants,” according to the Ig Nobel citation.
ARCTIC SCIENCE: A pair of researchers from the University of Oslo in Norway were recognized for producing evidence that reindeer are being attacked more frequently by polar bears as climate change leaves them with less sea ice and forces them to spend more time on land. That evidence involved a series of experiments comparing the reindeers’ reaction to humans dressed in dark hiking gear and to humans dressed up in polar bear costumes. When disguised as polar bears, the researchers didn’t have to get nearly so close to scare the reindeer and make them run away. Their findings appeared in the journal Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research.
NUTRITION: Infants may be too young to eat sausages, but they can help make them, Spanish food scientists found. They sequenced the RNA from baby poop and identified 109 kinds of lactic acid bacteria. Six strains of Lactobacillus were tested for their possible use as probiotic starter cultures for making sausage, and three of them – Lactobacillus casei/paracasei CTC1677, L. casei/paracasei CTC1678 and L. rhamnosus CTC1679 – worked. Their study was published in Food Microbiology.
A recent study demonstrating that chucking snails out of your garden was just as effective as poisoning them was not among the winners – this year. I’m still holding out hope that it will be recognized for its contribution to environmental science someday.
As Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, put it at the close of the awards ceremony: “If you didn’t win an Ig Nobel Prize tonight – and especially if you did – better luck next year.”