Dodgy sausages and the dangers of owning a cat: the 2014 Ig Nobel prizes

The Ig Nobel prizes, which celebrate “research that first makes people laugh, and then makes them think”, were awarded in a ceremony at Harvard University last week. 2014 marks the 24th time the prizes have been given. Past rewards have included a bra that doubles as a protective face mask and work on finding the best surface over which to drag your sheep (sloping wood, dragging parallel to the grain). This year’s prizes featured the science of a banana skin’s slapstick value, a nosebleed treatment involving cured pork tampons and Norwegian scientists dressing up as polar bears. Like the Nobel prizes, the Ig Nobels are awarded in particular categories, from astronomy and engineering to psychology and neuroscience. So, in no particular order, here are this year’s winners.

Arctic science

Norwegian scientists dressed up as polar bears to scare reindeer in Svalbard. Photo credit: Loozrboy/Flickr.

Norwegian scientists dressed up as polar bears to scare reindeer in Svalbard. Photo credit: Loozrboy/Flickr.

Having observed Norwegian reindeer coming into contact with polar bears in Svalbard, Eigil Reimers and Sindre Eftestøl from the University of Oslo wanted to measure the reindeer’s responses. Without any polar bears on hand, they chose the next best thing: cosplay. They found that the reindeer ran more than twice the distance away from polar bear imitators than from humans in hiking clothes. No word on whether they attracted any real polar bears with their fetching costumes, though.

Biology

Sorry, botanists: zoological research snapped up the Biology prize, too. Vlastimil Hart, working at the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague, looked at the orientations that dogs take, relative to the Earth’s magnetic field, when they pee. From over 7000 observations in 37 dog breeds, they concluded that the dogs preferred to align their bodies along the north-south axis under normal geomagnetic conditions. But they also found that dogs could sense very small changes in this magnetic field, the first time such sensitivity has been shown in dogs.

Nutrition

Last year, when accounts of dubious food contents were rife in the media, Raquel Rubio was busy finishing her upcoming paper on sausages – containing bacterial cultures from baby faeces. Rubio’s research, which won this year’s Ig Nobel in Nutrition, comes from Girona in Catalonia, a region famous for its fermented sausages.

Neuroscience

What happens in our brains when pictures of Jesus appear on our toast? Photo credit: topicagnostic/Flickr.

What happens in our brains when pictures of Jesus appear on our toast? Photo credit: topicagnostic/Flickr.

Stories of people finding the face of Jesus on their toast and in other foods crop up often. The prize in Neuroscience was awarded for work examining what happens to our brains during such ‘pareidolia‘ – the phenomenon of seeing faces in everyday objects. Kang Lee and his team presented their volunteers with pure-noise images, but told them that 50% of the images contained disguised faces. A third of the time, participants claimed to see faces that weren’t there.

Public health

The Public Health prize went to two separate research groups who sought to answer one troubling question: does owning a cat pose mental health risks? David Hanauer’s group found a higher incidence of depression in people with cat bites compared to people bitten by dogs (41% and 29%, respectively). Hanauer is careful not to imply a causation here. “It may simply be that people with depression gets cats because they feel depressed,” he said. “I am in no way telling people to get rid of their cats.” But he does recommend routine screening for cat bite patients as a new method of spotting depression early. Michigan-based Hanauer shared his award with another research group looking at the neurological effects of toxoplasmosis, a protozoan infection transmitted from cats to humans. Although mostly harmless, some work has suggested links to schizophrenia in rare cases. This Czech group saw personality changes in women and lowered IQs in men with latent toxoplasmosis – the lifelong presence of cysts in nervous tissue.

Psychology

Are you an early bird or a night owl? Do get up early to face the day ahead or do you regularly stay up until the early hours of the morning? Work from Liverpool Hope University and the University of Western Sydney might be cause for concern for those of a more nocturnal nature. Peter Jonason and his colleagues found links between people’s chronotypes – whether they prefer morning or night – and personality traits. People with night-time chronotypes were more likely to show ‘dark triad’ personality traits – tending to be more narcissistic, more manipulative and more psychopathic.

Physics

Are banana skins really that slippery, and why? Photo credit: Jon Jordan/Flickr.

Are banana skins really that slippery and why? Photo credit: Jon Jordan/Flickr.

As any cartoon character will tell you, banana skins can be terribly dangerous. In 2011, an American grocery chain was sued after a Californian woman slipped on a banana skin in one of their stores. And yet Harper’s Weekly warned us of their dangers as early as 1879, saying that “whosoever throws banana skins on the sidewalk does a great unkindness to the public, and is quite likely to be responsible for a broken limb.” Now, 135 years later, a considerate Japanese research group has taken a tribological (the science of friction and lubrication between interacting objects) approach to find out how much friction there really is between a banana skin and a linoleum floor. They found the friction coefficient to be 0.07; this is just slightly higher than a waxed ski sliding over snow (0.05). Recognising that banana consumers are not alone in their littering, they also set out to test other fruit skins. None were as slippery as a banana skin. None. What makes a banana’s skin so slippery, then? Kiyoshi Mabuchi and his team think it’s because the skins produce a “follicular gel” when they’re crushed – a unique effect. Mabuchi thinks this gel might have applications in artificial joint lubrication, his main area of work.

Economics

European countries describe their economies’ sizes, or gross domestic product (GDP), using criteria set out in the European System of National and Regional Accounts (ESA). The ESA was last updated in 2010 to include revenues associated with prostitution and the sale of illegal drugs. Italy, whose economy has struggled in recent years, implemented the changes this year. As a result, the Italian government was awarded the IgNobel prize in Economics. The inclusion of prostitution and drugs in the national accounts also boosted the UK’s GDP.

Art

Looking at beautiful pictures, like van Gogh's Starry Night, could help us when we're in pain. Photo credit: V Vasquez/Flickr.

Looking at beautiful pictures, like van Gogh’s Starry Night, could help us when we’re in pain. Photo credit: V Vasquez/Flickr.

It was Italy who won the Art prize too, with scientists from the University of Bari showing that looking at beautiful paintings lowers pain thresholds. Marina de Tommaso, Michele Sardaro and Paolo Livrea showed study participants 300 paintings, and asked them to select ones that were beautiful, ugly and neutral by rating them from one to 10. They were then told to view the paintings while Tommaso and her colleagues fired a laser beam at their left hands to induce pain. When viewing a beautiful painting, the participants felt the laser beam was less painful than when looking at a white panel or at one of the other painting categories. Looking at the beautiful art also lowered the intensity of the participants’ ‘P2 waves’ – a measure of pain response in the brain. The ‘ugly’ paintings, however, had no significant effect on pain thresholds. The therapeutic effect of visual and musical art is well-documented, with art therapies becoming an established partner to medical treatments. Is it important, then, that the paintings in hospitals are chosen carefully? Tommaso doesn’t think it’s crucial. “Beauty obviously offers a distraction that ugly things do not,” she said. “But at least there is no suggestion that ugly surroundings make the pain worse.” Just so you know, the beautiful paintings chosen by the participants included Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night and Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.

Medicine

Finally, the medicine prize this year was awarded for a study that recommended treating uncontrollable nosebleeds with “cured salted pork crafted as a nasal tampon”. The research team, based at Michigan State University, used their innovative method to treat a four-year-old girl with a condition called Glanzmann’s thrombasthenia. She was treated successfully on two separate occasions, with the bleeding stopping within 24 hours both times. The extremely rare disorder is caused by a platelet abnormality, and can either be inherited or acquired. The Ig Nobels award real scientific innovations that highlight the lighter side of research. The 2014 Nobel Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine and Economic Sciences, as well as the Nobel Peace Prize, will be announced in October.

By Mabon Elis, a 2nd year PhD student in the lab of Rico Coen

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