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On the slipperiness of banana peels, the appearance of Jesus’ face in toast and the mental hazards of cat ownership

The 2014 Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday night at Harvard University. Studies that investigated why banana peels are slippery, how reindeers react to humans dressed up in polar bear costumes and why some people see Jesus’ face in toast were among the winners.

Bestowed annually by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research, the Ig Nobel prizes were conceived a quarter century ago as a witty and whimsical prelude to the Nobel Prizes (which will be announced next month). The prizes are meant, according to the magazine’s editors, to honor achievements “that first make people laugh and then make them think.” They’re also meant, the editors add, to “celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative — and spur people’s interest in science, medicine and technology.”

The prizes are not intended to ridicule science. “Good achievements can also be odd, funny, and even absurb. So can bad achievements,” the editors explain. “A lot of good science gets attacked because of its absurdity. A lot of bad science gets revered despite its absurdity.”

A serious purpose

Indeed, much of the research honored by the Ig Nobel prizes has helped propel science forward — and has been recognized as doing so by the scientific community. For example, Harvard University mathematician Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan, a co-winner of the Ig Nobel in physics in 2007 for his study of bedsheet wrinkles, went on to receive a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant two years later. Although studying how fabrics wrinkle might sound frivolous, it actually has a very serious purpose — to deepen our understanding of how all things — including aging skin — form permanent folds.

Such folding “is critical to our existence,” Mahadevan told one reporter. “It happens in our tightly bound-up DNA.”

A similar seriousness underlies several of this year’s Ig Nobel prize-winning studies. The banana peel study, for example, was designed to help scientists better understand how human joints are lubricated — research that may lead to more effective treatments for joint-related medical disorders.

And the study behind this year’s Ig Nobel medicine award — which found that a nosebleed could be stopped, as folklore suggests, with a “nasal tampon” made of bacon — was done to help a young child with a rare medical condition that causes life-threatening nosebleeds.

“We had to do some out-of-the-box thinking,” one of that study’s authors told the Associated Press. “So that’s where we put our heads together and thought to the olden days and what they used to do.”

(That researcher does not recommend, however, that people with everyday nosebleeds stuff bacon up their noses, as it could cause an infection.)

In other words, you can’t judge the value of a scientific study by its title (something to keep in mind the next time you hear a politician ridiculing a particular government-funded study and using it as an example for why federal funds for scientific research need to be slashed).

And the winners are…

Here are all 10 of this year’s Ig Nobel winners:

Physics: To Japanese researchers “for measuring the amount of friction between a shoe and a banana skin, and between a banana skin and the floor, when a person steps on a banana skin that’s on the floor.”

Neuroscience: To Chinese and Canadian researchers “for trying to understand what happens in the brains of people who see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast.”

Psychology: To Australian, British and U.S. researchers “for amassing evidence that people who habitually stay up late are, on average, more self-admiring, more manipulative, and more psychopathic than people who habitually arise early in the morning.”

Public Health: To the authors of three different studies (here, here and here) “for investigating whether it is mentally hazardous for a human being to own a cat.”

Biology: To a multi-nation team of researchers “for carefully documenting that when dogs defecate and urinate, they prefer to align their body axis with Earth’s north-south geomagnetic field lines.”

Art: To a group of Italian researchers “for measuring the relative pain people suffer while looking at an ugly painting, rather than a pretty painting, while being shot (in the hand) by a powerful laser beam.”

Economics: To the Italian government’s National Institute of Statistics “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: To a team of researchers from the U.S. and India “for treating ‘uncontrollable’ nosebleeds, using the method of nasal-packing-with-strips-of-cured-pork.”

Arctic Science: To Norwegian and German researchers “for testing how reindeer react to seeing humans who are disguised as polar bears.”

Nutrition: To Spanish scientists for discovering that a type of “healthy” bacteria found in baby faeces can be used to turn sausages into a more healthful food.

You’ll find more information on the Ig Nobel prizes, including lists of all past years’ winners, at the Annals of Improbable Research’s website.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by E Gamauf on 09/20/2014 - 08:16 am.

    Toast of the Town & Ignoble End to Research Subjects

    Pattern recognition, even to the point of imagining faces out of random swirls, is interesting. (Although that slice above looks like it was done with selective buttering before toasting).

    What we ignore in the wake of this & what I want to know:

    What happened to the research subjects?

    Did they consume the toast eventually,
    or put it in a display case & tour the county fair circuit.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/22/2014 - 10:34 am.

    An obvious image of

    The Flying Spaghetti Monster.

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