Celebrating the weird and wonderful: and the Ig Nobel goes to…

24 Sep 2014

Food featured heavily in the 2014 Ig Nobels, fun awards to honour unusual and imaginative studies that make you first laugh and then think.

Why do we slip on banana skins? Or see faces in toast? Could a wad of cured pork stop a torrential nosebleed? And does looking at a beautiful painting lessen the feeling of pain?

If any of the above questions has kept you awake at night, then rest assured, science is seeking answers. Some of those answers were rewarded last week with Ig Nobel Prizes (the Ig in the title is important as it distinguishes it from that other set of prizes given to top-notch scientists, economists, pacifists and literary types).

If you are not familiar with the Ig Nobels, here’s the bottom line: they are awarded each year by Improbable Research for achievements that first make you laugh, but then make you think. A kind of levity with gravity, if you will.

Food breakthroughs

Food featured heavily in this year’s lineup – starting with the prize for physics, which went to Japanese researchers for seeking to understand more about that infamous pratfall: slipping on a banana skin. 

For a paper entitled Frictional Coefficient under Banana Skin the researchers took measurements as a shoe was pushed into a banana skin on a piece of lino. Their experiments suggest that a ‘polysaccharide follicular gel’ is key to the slippiness of crushed banana – and the resulting sudden change in friction that has delighted for generations. 

If (after you had picked yourself up off the lino floor) you abandoned the banana plan and decided instead on some toast, the sight of a face in the browned bread might stop you in your tracks. That’s where another Ig Nobel winner comes in – this time for neuroscience: researchers in China and Canada looked at brain activity in face pareidolia, or the illusory perception of non-existent faces.

In a paper called ‘Seeing Jesus in toast: Neural and behavioral correlates of face pareidolia’ they conclude: “Our findings suggest that human face processing has a strong top-down component whereby sensory input with even the slightest suggestion of a face can result in the interpretation of a face.”

The shock of it could prompt a nosebleed, so it’s a good job you are in the kitchen. The Ig Nobel for medicine went to an analysis of how a ‘nasal tampon’ crafted from strips of cured pork was used to stem potentially life-threatening haemorrhages from the nose in a young patient with a bleeding disorder.

And if that hasn’t put you off your breakfast, the nutrition ‘Ig’ went to Spanish researchers for a study entitled (wait for it) ‘Characterization of Lactic Acid Bacteria Isolated from Infant Faeces as Potential Probiotic Starter Cultures for Fermented Sausages’. Delicious.

Magnetic dogs and scary cats

Moving swiftly on, if you happen to have dog waiting for a bit of that deity-faced toast to fall off your plate or a bit of pork to swoosh out of your bloodied nose, that loveable pooch may well have a secret power.

The Ig Nobel for biology went to researchers in the Czech Republic and Germany for a paper called ‘Dogs are sensitive to small variations of the Earth’s magnetic field’

They measured the direction of the body axis in 70 dogs of 37 breeds as the dogs defecated or urinated over the course of two years (no really, this is in the paper, go read it) and they found “clear and simply measurable evidence for influence of geomagnetic field variations’ on the dogs’ behaviour.

If, on the other hand, you are a cat person, maybe don’t delve too deeply into the Ig Nobel for public health, which was awarded for studies on the mental effects of Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that spends part of its life cycle in cat faeces (which may or may not be magnetically oriented: the folks above were really only looking at the dogs) and a correlation between depression and cat bites.

Lasers, reindeer and staying up late

Scientific Ig Nobels also went to the group in Italy that fired lasers at people as they admired paintings and thereby showed the pain-lessening effects of beautiful art, the researchers in Norway who observed how reindeer react to humans dressed as polar bears (spoiler: Rudolph runs away) and the researchers in the UK and Australia who explored the ‘Dark Triad’ of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism in people who tend to stay up late. Don’t stay up late to read that one.

You can see the full list of Ig Nobel winners from 2014 and previous winners here, the awards ceremony at Harvard here and get updates on research that makes you laugh and then think at the Improbable Research blog and on Twitter at @improbresearch

Banana skin image via Shutterstock

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication