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2016 Ig Nobel Prizes make us laugh but also think

Honorees included the inventor of a polyester testicle sling, lying researchers and, of course, Goat Man.

Thomas Thwaites created prosthetic extensions of his limbs that allowed him to move in the manner of, and spend time roaming hills in the company of, goats.

I couldn’t let the month end without mentioning the Ig Nobel Prizes for 2016, which were handed out at a festive ceremony at Harvard University on Sept. 22.

Organized by the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), a scientific humor magazine, these prizes are, obviously, parodies of the Nobel Prizes — but with a purpose.

The Ig Nobel Prizes, which are awarded for serious but definitely offbeat research, are meant to “celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative — and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology,” according to the ceremony’s organizers.

Or, as the Ig Nobel organizers also put it: The prizes are designed “to make people laugh and then think.”

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Here are some of the winners from this year’s list:

Reproduction Prize (Egypt) — “The late Ahmed Shafik, for studying the effects of wearing polyester, cotton, or wool trousers on the sex life of rats, and for conducting similar tests with human males.”

Shafik reported back in the 1990s that the fabric of pants worn by male rats affected how often they mated. Rats that wore natural fibers — cotton and wool — apparently had more sexual encounters than those who wore polyester. Shafik then repeated the experiment (sort of) by having 14 male human volunteers wear a polyester sling over their testicles for a year. After noting that none of the volunteers’ female partners had became pregnant during the study, he declared that “the sling is a safe, acceptable, inexpensive, and reversible method of contraception in men.”

I don’t think it caught on, though.

Medicine Prize (Germany) — “Christoph Helmchen, Carina Palzer, Thomas Münte, Silke Anders, and Andreas Sprenger, for discovering that if you have an itch on the left side of your body, you can relieve it by looking into a mirror and scratching the right side of your body (and vice versa).”

The 26 people who volunteered for this study weren’t completely fooled by the mirror trick, however. They experienced only some relief — about 25 percent of that from scratching the actual itch. The finding suggests, however, that visual cues can sometimes override messages from the body, according to the study’s authors. 

Psychology Prize (Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Canada, USA) — “Evelyne Debey, Maarten De Schryver, Gordon Logan, Kristina Suchotzki, and Bruno Verschuere, for asking a thousand liars how often they lie, and for deciding whether to believe those answers.”

Lying proficiency peaks in young adulthood — between the ages of 18 and 29 — and then gradually declines into old age, according to this study. Its authors believe their finding reflects age-related changes in inhibitory control. (Lying requires a person to have enough control to suppress the truth.)

Hmmm …  I can think of at least one person currently in the news who seems to both lack inhibitory control and be able to lie repeatedly and proficiently. And he’s far from being a young adult. But, of course, every study has its statistical outliers (no pun intended).

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Biology Prize (U.K.) — “Awarded jointly to: Charles Foster, for living in the wild as, at different time, a badger, an otter, a deer, a fox, and a bird; and to Thomas Thwaites, for creating prosthetic extensions of his limbs that allowed him to move in the manner of, and spend time roaming hills in the company of, goats.”

OK. These antics may sound ridiculous, but both men have written books about their experiences that have received good reviews. Foster’s book, “Being a Beast,” was called “an eccentric modern classic of nature writing … packed with wriggling pleasures” by the New York Times, for example. And Kirkus Reviews said Thwaites’ book, “GoatMan,” was “a quirkily entertaining exploration of what it means to be human and what it might be like to be a goat.”

Perception Prize (Japan) — “Atsuki Higashiyama and Kohei Adachi, for investigating whether things look different when you bend over and view them between your legs.” 

This study found that objects appear smaller and the distance to them appears shorter when you look at them through your legs rather than standing in a normal, upright position.

Go ahead. Test it out. No one’s looking.

FMI: You can read about all this year’s Nobel Ig Prizes at the Annals of Improbable Research website. I also recommend watching a PBS NewsHour Weekend video about the prizes, which explains why this kind of research has an important role to play in science, even if it seems quite silly.