Never Smile at a Crocodile
This year’s Ig Nobel prizes award research on the liquid nature of cats and other strange inquiries
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.