In a room packed with Nobel laureates, opera singers, and whizzing paper airplanes, this could only be one event: the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, reports Science Mag. This marks the 26th year of the contest that celebrates scientific studies that ‘make you laugh, and then think’.
“And the chemistry prize goes to … Volkswagen!” The announcement, made last night in a packed hall at Harvard University, was unlikely to please the car company, however. That’s because it was awarded “for solving the problem of excessive automobile pollution emissions by automatically, electromechanically producing fewer emissions whenever the cars are being tested,” explained Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research.
Just like the $10trn prize accepted on stage by the winning scientists – it is a Zimbabwean banknote with little value as a result of hyperinflation – the report says many of this year’s studies focused on perception and deception.
Take for example the Ig Nobel Prize – winning study of itches by a team of neurologists and psychologists at the University of Lübeck in Germany, published in PLOS ONE in 2013. The researchers injected a chemical under the skin of people’s arms to cause a mild itch. The volunteers were then asked to scratch one of their arms while looking at themselves in a mirror. The catch was that the mirror and a real-time video camera controlled which arm appeared to be scratched. Sometimes the participants scratched the truly itchy arm but it looked like their non-itchy arm was being scratched, and vice versa. And surprisingly, the subjects reported significant itch relief even when they scratched the wrong arm – as long as it looked like the itchy arm was getting scratched.
The report says misperception in the non-human world also got the Ig Nobel nod. Two studies of confused animals led by Gábor Horváth, a biophysicist at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, garnered a joint prize. The first was a study of dragonflies published in 2007 in Freshwater Biology. The mystery was why dragonflies were spending so much time on polished black gravestones in Hungarian cemeteries where the insects’ prey were nowhere to be found. The females were even depositing their eggs on the stone surface where they had no chance of surviving. The answer? Polarised light. The insects detect their watery homes by looking for the polarised light that shimmers on its surface. It turns out that the black gravestones reflect similar polarized light, turning them into a literal graveyard for dragonflies.
Then Horváth turned to the mystery of horse flies. Why do they prefer to bite dark horses over white ones? In a study published in 2010 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, he discovered the answer: Polarised light strikes again. Horses with pure white fur are much prized by breeders and suffer a range of maladies – including sunburn – but they have a built-in advantage. White horse fur does not reflect the characteristic polarised light that the blood-sucking insects use to find their lunch.
But perhaps the ultimate exploration of animal confusion goes to Charles Foster and Thomas Thwaites. Foster is an ethicist and veterinarian based in Oxford and Thwaites is a technologist based in London, and both of them have spent significant amounts of time pretending to not be humans. Foster, who wanted to better understand the non-human “worldview,” lived for days at a time as a badger, sleeping all day and roaming the forest all night on his hands and knees hunting for earthworms to eat. The animal of choice for Thwaites was an elephant, but he deemed it too dangerous and difficult of a transformation, so he settled on being a goat.
This required the design of prosthetic limbs and intense physical training. He spent days with goats in the Swiss Alps, chewing grass and generally trying to fit in with the herd. What did he learn from his immersive exploration of the goat world? It’s crucial to have friends in the intensely hierarchical world of the herd, and Thwaites says he was lucky to have a goat “buddy.”
The report says that all their hard work paid off last night as they accepted their $10trn prizes.
Full results of the 2016 Ig Nobel Prize Winners:
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.
REFERENCE: “Effect of Different Types of Textiles on Sexual Activity. Experimental study,” Ahmed Shafik, European Urology, vol. 24, no. 3, 1993, pp. 375-80.
REFERENCE: “Contraceptive Efficacy of Polyester-Induced Azoospermia in Normal Men,” Ahmed Shafik, Contraception, vol. 45, 1992, pp. 439-451.
ECONOMICS PRIZE [NEW ZEALAND, UK] — Mark Avis, Sarah Forbes, and Shelagh Ferguson, for assessing the perceived personalities of rocks, from a sales and marketing perspective.
REFERENCE: “The Brand Personality of Rocks: A Critical Evaluation of a Brand Personality Scale,” Mark Avis, Sarah Forbes ,and Shelagh Ferguson, Marketing Theory, vol. 14, no. 4, 2014, pp. 451-475.
WHO ATTENDED THE CEREMONY: Mark Avis and Sarah Forbes
PHYSICS PRIZE [HUNGARY, SPAIN, SWEDEN, SWITZERLAND] — Gábor Horváth, Miklós Blahó, György Kriska, Ramón Hegedüs, Balázs Gerics, Róbert Farkas, Susanne Åkesson, Péter Malik, and Hansruedi Wildermuth, for discovering why white-haired horses are the most horsefly-proof horses, and for discovering why dragonflies are fatally attracted to black tombstones.
REFERENCE: “An Unexpected Advantage of Whiteness in Horses: The Most Horsefly-Proof Horse Has a Depolarizing White Coat,” Gábor Horváth, Miklós Blahó, György Kriska, Ramón Hegedüs, Balázs Gerics, Róbert Farkas and Susanne Åkesson, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, vol. 277 no. 1688, pp. June 2010, pp. 1643-1650.
REFERENCE: “Ecological Traps for Dragonflies in a Cemetery: The Attraction of Sympetrum species (Odonata: Libellulidae) by Horizontally Polarizing Black Grave-Stones,” Gábor Horváth, Péter Malik, György Kriska, Hansruedi Wildermuth, Freshwater Biology, vol. 52, vol. 9, September 2007, pp. 1700–9.
WHO ATTENDED THE CEREMONY: Susanne Åkesson
CHEMISTRY PRIZE [GERMANY] — Volkswagen, for solving the problem of excessive automobile pollution emissions by automatically, electromechanically producing fewer emissions whenever the cars are being tested.
REFERENCE: “EPA, California Notify Volkswagen of Clean Air Act Violations”, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency news release, September 18, 2015.
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).
REFERENCE: “Itch Relief by Mirror Scratching. A Psychophysical Study,” Christoph Helmchen, Carina Palzer, Thomas F. Münte, Silke Anders, Andreas Sprenger, PLoS ONE, vol. 8, no 12, December 26, 2013, e82756.
WHO ATTENDED THE CEREMONY: Andreas Sprenger
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.
REFERENCE: “From Junior to Senior Pinocchio: A Cross-Sectional Lifespan Investigation of Deception,” Evelyne Debey, Maarten De Schryver, Gordon D. Logan, Kristina Suchotzki, and Bruno Verschuere, Acta Psychologica, vol. 160, 2015, pp. 58-68.
WHO ATTENDED THE CEREMONY: Bruno Verschuere
PEACE PRIZE [CANADA, USA] — Gordon Pennycook, James Allan Cheyne, Nathaniel Barr, Derek Koehler, and Jonathan Fugelsang for their scholarly study called “On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit”.
REFERENCE: “On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit,” Gordon Pennycook, James Allan Cheyne, Nathaniel Barr, Derek J. Koehler, and Jonathan A. Fugelsang, Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 10, No. 6, November 2015, pp. 549–563.
WHO ATTENDED THE CEREMONY: Gordon Pennycook, Nathaniel Barr, Derek Koehler, and Jonathan Fugelsang
BIOLOGY PRIZE [UK] — Awarded jointly to: Charles Foster, for living in the wild as, at different times, 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.
REFERENCE: GoatMan; How I Took a Holiday from Being Human, Thomas Thwaites, Princeton Architectural Press, 2016, ISBN 978-1616894054.
REFERENCE: Being a Beast, by Charles Foster, Profile Books, 2016, ISBN 978-1781255346.
WHO ATTENDED THE CEREMONY: Charles Foster, Thomas Thwaites. [NOTE: Thomas Thwaites’s goat suit was kindly released for Ig Nobel purposes from the exhibition ‘Platform – Body/Space’ at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam, and will be back on display at the museum from 4 October 2016 till 8 January 2017.]
LITERATURE PRIZE [SWEDEN] — Fredrik Sjöberg, for his three-volume autobiographical work about the pleasures of collecting flies that are dead, and flies that are not yet dead.
REFERENCE: “The Fly Trap” is the first volume of Fredrik Sjöberg’s autobiographical trilogy, “En Flugsamlares Vag” (“The Path of a Fly Collector”), and the first to be published in English. Pantheon Books, 2015, ISBN 978-1101870150.
WHO ATTENDED THE CEREMONY: Fredrik Sjöberg
PERCEPTION PRIZE [JAPAN] — Atsuki Higashiyama and Kohei Adachi, for investigating whether things look different when you bend over and view them between your legs.
REFERENCE: “Perceived size and Perceived Distance of Targets Viewed From Between the Legs: Evidence for Proprioceptive Theory,” Atsuki Higashiyama and Kohei Adachi, Vision Research, vol. 46, no. 23, November 2006, pp. 3961–76.
WHO ATTENDED THE CEREMONY: Atsuki Higashiyama