Science in Mind

Ig Nobels give a playful nod to weird science

As human spotlight Katrina Rosenberg, left, shines a flashlight, Bert Tolkamp of the Netherlands spoke after accepting the Probability Prize during the 2013 annual Ig Nobel prize ceremony at Harvard University.
As human spotlight Katrina Rosenberg, left, shines a flashlight, Bert Tolkamp of the Netherlands spoke after accepting the Probability Prize during the 2013 annual Ig Nobel prize ceremony at Harvard University.(AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

It’s that one night of the year when esteemed scientists who have made discoveries that have transformed our understanding of the world stand up to congratulate scientists whose meticulously researched insights have made us guffaw.

Thursday night at Harvard University, Nobel laureates took the stage to hand out the Ig Nobels, a satirical version of the Nobel prizes, which will be announced in early October. This year, the prizes were awarded in 10 disciplines, ranging from the physics prize for at last explaining why banana peels are slippery, to the medicine prize for using strips of cured pork to stop a gushing nosebleed.


The event, all in good fun, is a production of the Annals of Improbable Research, a science humor magazine. Although the prizes are handed out in jest, they highlight a truth about science: far from being an esoteric enterprise that can only be leveled at topics that seem incomprehensible, it is a tool that can be used to pry open all kinds of questions — even ones that seem silly or obvious. Like measuring how reindeer react when they see humans in polar bear outfits. Seriously.

The prizes, which were handed out in a whirlwind of strictly timed 60-second acceptance speeches, a comedic opera, and a hail of paper airplanes, covered:

■   Physics: A Japanese team has finally tested whether, indeed, banana skins are really as slippery as slapstick comedy would have us believe. In “Frictional Coefficient under Banana Skin,” they show a banana skin reduces the friction between a shoe sole and the floor by about a fifth.

■   Neuroscience: In “Seeing Jesus in Toast,” a team from China and Canada have clinched the neuroscience prize with an exploration of a phenomenon called face pareidolia, in which people see nonexistent faces. First, they tricked participants into thinking that a nonsense image had a face or letter hidden in it. Then, they carefully monitored brain activity in the participants they managed to convince, to understand which parts of our minds are to blame.


■  Psychology: A team from Australia, England, and the United States found that night owls are more narcissistic, manipulative, and psychopathic than early risers. Here’s how they framed their hypothesis: “Such a disposition will take advantage of the low light, the limited monitoring, and the lessened cognitive processing of morning-type people.”

■  Public Health: The award was split between two teams for an investigation of the mental hazards of owning a cat.

Czech researchers chronicled personality changes in young cat ladies and documented a decline in I.Q. and adventure-seeking behavior by men who were infected by toxoplasmosis, a parasite commonly found in cat excrement. A US team scoured medical records from 1.3 million patients and found that depression was relatively common among women who had reported being bitten by cats, and that screening those who had bitten by pets might be fruitful.

■   Biology: A team of Czech and German researchers are being honored for their finding that when dogs poop and pee, they prefer to squat with their bodies facing in a north-south line. Even silly results aren’t trivial to arrive at: the team observed 70 dogs, from 37 breeds. That’s nearly 2,000 defecations and 5,582 urinations over two years of smelly observation.

■  Art: A team from Italy showed what the aesthetically sensitive among us already knew: looking at a beautiful painting while being shot in the hand with a painful laser beam hurts less than when looking at an ugly painting.


■  Economics: In one of the few prize categories that overlaps with the real Nobel, the award goes to the Italian government, “for proudly taking the lead in fulfilling the European Union mandate for each country to increase the official size of its national economy by including revenues from prostitution, illegal drug sales, smuggling, and all other unlawful financial transactions between willing participants.”

■  Medicine: A team from Detroit and India described the unusual case of the cured pork nasal tampon. A 4-year-old child with life-threatening nosebleeds was saved by sticking cured pork up her nose.

■  Arctic Science: A pair of Norwegian researchers observed what happened when humans dressed up as polar bears in the presence of reindeer .

■  Nutrition: Spanish researchers studied the potential utility of using bacteria isolated from infant feces as a starter culture for fermented sausages.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.