Science, with a dash of silliness
You must have heard about the Nobel Prize. It’s any one of those international prizes that are awarded annually for outstanding work in a number of fields including Medicine, Literature and Peace. There is however another kind of Nobel Prize of much importance (if you’re looking for a good laugh, that is!). It’s the “ignoble” or Ig Nobel Prize. Held every mid-September, its primary focus is to honor “achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.”
The prizes have been awarded for a variety of reasons, including a demonstration on how people slip and fall less often if they wear socks on the outside of their shoes, a statement that black holes fulfill all the technical requirements to be the location of Hell, as well as research on the “five-second rule” ( a tongue-in-cheek belief that food dropped on the floor will not become contaminated if it is picked up within five seconds)
Established in 1991, the Ig Nobels are a good-natured parody of the Nobel Prizes. The prizes have always been perceived as a celebration of scientific silliness, awarded to celebrate ten unusual or trivial achievements in scientific research.
So in this spirit of curiosity and love for science let’s take a look at five 2018 Ig Nobel Prize winners.
Who and for What: Marc Mitchell and David Wartinger, for showing that roller coaster rides are a fun way to hasten the passage of kidney stones.
How: They filled a silicone model of a kidney with real kidney stones and real urine and took it with them on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disney World, which they rode 60 times. A rear seating position on a roller coaster is apparently a great way to pass them more quickly.
If you think about it: Passing kidney stones is a long and painful process. If riding roller coasters made it easier, maybe it’s worth investigating further?
Who and for What: Paula Romao, Adilia Alarcao, and the late Cesar Viana, for measuring the degree to which human saliva is a good cleaning agent for dirty surfaces.
How: After analyzing human saliva with chromatography and testing its power to remove various paints, the team found that spit is in-fact a pretty good cleaning product. They concluded that it gets its power from beta-amylase — and they used the stuff to create fake saliva, just to prove it.
If you think about it: We all use a bit spit to rub off small smudges now and then. If spit is a great cleaner and we can cheaply create fake saliva then what’s the downside?
Who and for What: Tomas Persson, Gabriela-Alina Sauciuc, and Elaine Madsen, for collecting evidence, in a zoo, that chimpanzees imitate humans about as often, and about as well, as humans imitate chimpanzees.
How: Scientists spent a month watching the chimpanzees AND the visitors at Furuvik Zoo in Sweden and found that each species imitates the other about 10 percent of the time — and each does it about as accurately as the other, too.
If you think about it: This research does have important implications for our understanding of primate communication. For humans imitation plays an important role in the development of skills and knowledge. But it had previously been assumed that chimpanzees and other non-human primates did not engage in imitation games, but with this research it was proved false!
Who and for What: Paul Becher, Sebastien Lebreton, Erika Wallin, Erik Hedenstrom, Felipe Borrero-Echeverry, Marie Bengtsson, Volker Jorger, and Peter Witzgall, for demonstrating that wine experts can reliably identify, by smell- the presence of a single fly in a glass of wine.
How: The researchers recruited eight of the official quality assessors for the Baden wine region in Germany to smell and taste wine in several glasses, some of which had once contained a female vinegar fly. The experts could sniff out whichever glasses the fly had been in.
If you think about it: This means that humans have a receptor for the pheromone produced by the female vinegar fly. We don’t know why we do, but we do. One could also say that the female fruit fly emits a pheromone with a particularly strong unpleasant scent so they are easily detected by humans!
Who and for What: James Cole, for calculating that the caloric intake from a human-cannibalism diet is significantly lower than the caloric intake from most other traditional meat diets.
How: In his paper Cole presents “a nutritional template that offers a proxy calorie value for the human body” which proves that a human body is not particularly high in nutritional value, especially when compared to other kinds of meat.
If you think about it: Although it horrifies most of us (hopefully all of us) a lot of early civilizations and cultures have had the practice of cannibalism. You might wonder if this was because humans provide more nutrients than other kinds of meat but this research suggests that human-cannibalism was primarily done for social and cultural reasons.
It’s not surprising that the Ig Nobel Awards ceremony is traditionally closed with the words: “If you didn’t win a prize—and especially if you did—better luck next year!”
Which was award was your favorite?