Never Smile at a Crocodile

This year’s Ig No­bel prizes award re­search on the liq­uid na­ture of cats and other strange inquiries

Newsweek International - - NEWSWEEK - BY MEGHAN BAR­TELS @meghan­bar­tels

The big ques­tions and saves lives. But sci­ence isn’t done by ro­bots, and there usu­ally isn’t a straight line be­tween ques­tion and an­swer. And the quirks of sci­en­tists and the rab­bit holes they in­ves­ti­gate can have im­por­tant im­pli­ca­tions for sci­ence. (Re­mem­ber, the world’s first an­tibi­otic, peni­cillin, was orig­i­nally “mold juice” that got out of con­trol over a va­ca­tion.)

That’s the side of the sci­en­tific process cel­e­brated by the Ig No­bels, an an­nual recog­ni­tion of stud­ies that “first make peo­ple laugh, then make them think.” Pre­vi­ous awards have hon­ored re­search on the psy­chol­ogy of ly­ing, the un­boil­ing of eggs, the ubiq­uity of the word huh and the turn­ing of old am­mu­ni­tion into di­a­monds, among many other off-kil­ter ac­com­plish­ments. Un­like the No­bel Prizes they riff on, the cat­e­gories vary each year, and peo­ple can be hon­ored posthu­mously.

Dur­ing a cer­e­mony held Septem­ber 14 in Cam­bridge, Mas­sachusetts, this year’s win­ners were an­nounced by a col­lec­tion of ac­tual

No­bel Prize re­cip­i­ents. Here’s the re­search the com­mit­tee se­lected.

→ About 5 per­cent of peo­ple have sleep ap­nea, a breath­ing con­di­tion in which their air­ways col­lapse dur­ing the night, wak­ing them up. The con­di­tion is as­so­ciated with an in­creased risk of death from stroke. When a didgeri­doo in­struc­tor reached out to a team of sleep re­searchers af­ter he and his stu­dents re­al­ized they were sleep­ing bet­ter than they had be­fore tak­ing up the in­stru­ment, a fruit­ful re­search part­ner­ship was born. The re­search won the Ig No­bel’s peace prize.

→ If you can’t tell a pair of iden­ti­cal twins apart, you may not need to feel so guilty—they may have trou­ble with the task as well. We’re all pro­grammed to rec­og­nize our own faces, but be­cause the faces of iden­ti­cal twins are so sim­i­lar, one twin will in­stinc­tively rec­og­nize both faces just as well.

→ A pa­per called “On the Rhe­ol­ogy of Cats” ap­plied the physics of flow­ing mat­ter (that’s rhe­ol­ogy) to cats and their in­fa­mous “If it fits, I sits” phi­los­o­phy. There’s more re­search to be done here, au­thor Marc-an­toine Fardin wrote: “The wet­ting and gen­eral tri­bol­ogy of cats has not pro­gressed enough to give a de­fin­i­tive an­swer to the cap­il­lary de­pen­dence of the fe­line re­lax­ation time.”

Hold­ing a live 3-foot-long crocodile led cer­tain gam­blers to make big­ger bets.

→ About two decades ago, 19 Bri­tish doc­tors got to­gether to ask whether old men have big ears— and if so, why. (They con­firmed the trend but were un­able to suss out its causes.) The re­sult­ing pa­per has now re­ceived the Ig No­bel for anatomy. When the pa­per was pub­lished, it was met with sev­eral thought­ful let­ters from read­ers, in­clud­ing one of­fer­ing a term for the con­di­tion in all six Celtic lan­guages, notes about the Chi­nese’s be­lief that the trait is cor­re­lated with longevity and wealth, and a scat­ter plot of writ­ers’ own re­search into the re­la­tion­ship be­tween ear size and age.

→ The economics prize went to the re­searchers be­hind a pa­per with the de­light­ful ti­tle “Never Smile at a Crocodile: Bet­ting on Elec­tronic Gam­ing Ma­chines Is In­ten­si­fied by Rep­tile-in­duced Arousal.” Again, an un­usual ap­proach to a com­mon prob­lem: About 80 per­cent of Amer­i­cans have gam­bled, and be­tween 3 and 5 per­cent of those who do have trou­ble man­ag­ing the be­hav­ior. Hold­ing a live 3-foot-long crocodile led cer­tain gam­blers to make big­ger bets, but it also led gam­blers who ad­mit­ted to more neg­a­tive feel­ings to make smaller bets. (Please do not try this at home.)

→ The bi­ol­ogy prize win­ners weren’t able to at­tend the cer­e­mony in per­son but sent a video filmed in a cave—which is ap­pro­pri­ate, since their re­search in­volved watch­ing 24 pairs of four re­lated species of cave in­sects, known as Neotrogla, have sex. They de­ter­mined the fe­male, but not the male, has a pe­nis-like or­gan, which in­cludes “nu­mer­ous spines.” Don’t worry—their study pro­vides plenty of pho­tographs.

→ Cof­fee is cru­cial. Spilling cof­fee is an ev­ery­day disas­ter. So learn­ing how to spill cof­fee less of­ten is a pri­or­ity for sci­en­tists, which is why this year’s win­ner in fluid dy­nam­ics in­ves­ti­gated how cof­fee sloshes when you walk back­ward.

→ We all have a food that the thought of makes our stom­achs roil with dis­gust. Ap­par­ently, for some peo­ple that food is cheese— and, in fact, ap­par­ently, “a higher per­cent­age of peo­ple are dis­gusted by cheese than by other types of food,” ac­cord­ing to the win­ners of the Ig No­bel in medicine. They gath­ered some cheese-haters, popped them in an FMRI ma­chine and watched their brains light up with dis­gust. In the process, they re­al­ized that the basal gan­glia of our brains, which are known to be in­volved in re­wards, may also be in­volved in dis­gust.

→ If you’re squeamish, maybe skip this one. A trio of re­searchers dis­cov­ered that a Brazil­ian vam­pire bat species pre­vi­ously be­lieved to sub­sist pri­mar­ily on bird blood ac­tu­ally snacks on hu­man blood reg­u­larly. They warn that the bats could spread ra­bies.

→ Re­mem­ber when playing Mozart for your un­born baby was all the rage? Ac­cord­ing to the win­ners of this year’s ob­stet­rics prize, it’s more ef­fec­tive to play mu­sic in­side the mother’s vagina than through her ab­domen. And yes, there’s a patent in­volved.

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