Ig Nobels 2014: Aha-ha-ha-ha moments

If you thought science was just all about “Aha!” moments, then you only have to be reminded that there is such a thing as the 24-year-old Ig Nobel Prizes awarded this time every year in Harvard’s Sanders Theatre. Then you get to see that science could also make for laugh-out-loud “aha-ha-ha-ha-ha” moments. For 24 years, it has been giving awards to “achievements that first make people laugh, then make them think.” 

This year’s Ig Nobel Prize winners range from getting to the bottom, as in the cellular bottom, of myths such as how we slip on banana peels and what happens to our brain cells that results in seeing faces, even Jesus’ face on toasts, to the secret orientation of pooping dogs, the effect of cats on women’s behavior and more.

For the IgNobel for Physics, the banana peel was the chosen object of interest since according to their study, “anyone cannot doubt the lubricating ability of the banana skin but no one dare not measure its friction.” Surely, they continued, there must be “some academic interest in this question.” So Kiyoshi Mabuchi, Kensei Tanaka, Daichi Uchijima and Rina Sakai dared where no one has slipped before and found that the follicular gel in the banana peel really has a very low frictional coefficient – even lower than that of popular lubricating gels.

Jiangang Liu, Jun Li, Lu Feng, Ling Li, Jie Tian, Kang Lee are the winners of the Ig Nobel Prize in Neuroscience for figuring out which cells in our brain are responsible for seeing faces and letters when the subjects were shown pure “noise” images like what you see in clouds or landscapes. They found out that the right fusiform face area, that part of our brains that recognize real faces, is also active when we see faces that are not really there. Their study is entitled Seeing Jesus in Toast: Neural and Behavioral Correlates of Face Pareidolia. I think this puts a damper on those who think that they are so special that deities appear on their breakfast meals.

I can imagine this Ig Nobel Psychology Prize might just solicit violent objections from many in this 24-hour global economy where active night lives are now so ubiquitous. The study by Peter K. Jonason, Amy Jones, and Minna Lyons found out that on the average, people who are night owls have “darker” traits - more self-centered, more manipulative and more psychopathic- than what they called “morning type people.” To those who will post comments here to say that they are night owls but are not “dark” in character, please be reminded that the key phrase in any statistical study like this one is “on the average.” It means that the study is not saying that ALL night owls are “evil.”

A parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, that infects dogs and cats can also affect women’s health. The disease is called toxoplasmosis. This was what Ig Nobel winners for Public Health, Jaroslav Flegr, Jan Havlíček, Jitka Hanušova-Lindova, David Hanauer, Naren Ramakrishnan, Lisa Seyfried investigated where they found that young women who had this disease where of higher intelligence and less prone to feeling guilty.  

My dog, Gravity, does not seem to follow this next finding or maybe because he has not read it yet. The Ig Nobel for Biology went to a study by institutions from 3 countries, namely the Czech Republic, Germany and Zambia that observed the “direction of the body axis in 70 dogs of 37 breeds during defecation (1,893 observations) and urination (5,582 observations) over a two-year period.” Their conclusion is that when dogs do their first and second order of business, they align themselves according to the planet’s geomagnetic field lines.

The Art Ig Nobel prize, although it could have also been for Medicine and Physiology, went to the researchers who found that the people could tolerate pain (from laser “strikes”, not of Jedi proportion) better when they were looking at paintings they themselves rated to be “beautiful” to them as opposed to paintings they themselves thought as “ugly.”

If you are one of those who refer to science as a subject that makes your nose bleed, here is science that could stop a literal nosebleed. The Ig Nobel for Medicine went to those who reported the case of a 4-year-old profuse nosebleeder whose bleeding was stopped when his nose was stuffed with lots of bacon. I have no way of knowing if it was also able to stop the laughter of anyone involved in the study, whether it be the patient or the one administering the slabs of bacon.

Darwin would probably smile at the Arctic science Ig Nobel prize that went to those who dressed up humans like polar bears and observed how reindeer in Norway would react. The reindeer did run away from the polar-bear wannabes confirming for those who are not yet sure, that indeed there is a predator-prey relationship between polar bears and reindeer.

For sausage lovers, you may want to skip this. The Ig Nobel for Nutrition went to researchers who isolated and characterized the lactic acid bacteria from the poop of human babies to use as probiotic starter cultures for fermented sausages. As scientific as this is, I still smiled when the study highlights referred to the “lucky” sausages as “model sausages.” I guess sausages made from this very special source indeed get promoted from being “anonymous” to “models.”

The last one is I think something the Philippines could have won, if the value of corruption and Napoles scam were included in our GNP. But alas the Ig Nobel Economics prize went to Italy’s National Institute of Statistics for including in its revenues, the economic contribution of prostitution, illegal drugs, smuggling and all other illegal transactions between consenting parties.

So for those of you who thought that laughter was a stranger to science, remember the yearly Igs. It revolutionized the terrain of human curiosity while giving us a good belly laugh. – Rappler.com 

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, Science Solitaire and Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire. Her column appears every Friday and you can reach her at sciencesolitaire@gmail.com.