Photograph by Charles Krupa, AP
Published October 1, 2010
Cursing reduces pain, remote-controlled helicopters can gather whale snot, and fruit bats perform fellatio. These are just a few of the unusual scientific achievements honored Thursday as 2010's Ig Nobel Prizes.
The scientific celebration, hosted by the Annals of Improbable Research journal and several Harvard student groups, honors real research "that first makes people laugh, and then makes them think."
Harvard University's Sanders Theater hosted the 20th annual event, which this year carried the theme "bacteria."
As always a number of genuine Nobel laureates were on hand to distribute the coveted prizes. They included Roy Glauber (physics, 2005), Frank Wilczek (physics, 2004), Sheldon Glashow (physics, 1979), James Muller (peace, 1985), and William Lipscomb (chemistry, 1976).
Snatching Whale Snot by Helicopter
Diane Gendron of Mexico's Instituto Politécnico Nacional and colleagues claimed the engineering prize for proving that remote-controlled helicopters can be used to collect whale snot.
The team is studying whale health by monitoring the snotty "blow" that whales spout. Under microscopic analysis, blow can be monitored to learn what types of bacteria are present in healthy or ill whales of all age and types.
Collection presents obvious challenges. But the answer hit these researchers in the face, literally, as spray from the whales' blowholes. "It is so smelly," Gendron explained, "that there must be bacteria in it."
The team used a three-foot-long (one-meter-long) helicopter, controlled from a boat, to fly fresh petri dishes above breached whales and into their spray—a noninvasive technique which the whales notice but don't seem to mind.
"How else can you sample the world's largest mammal without touching it?" asked Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse of the Zoological Society of London.
Profanity Provides Pain Relief
Holy &@%!! If one of your loved ones can curse a blue streak, they may know something you don't—swearing is a response to pain and actually helps to relieve it, according to the prize-winning team from the U.K.'s Keele University.
Study subjects were asked to hold their hands in icy water for extended periods of time. Those allowed to repeat a swear word, rather than an ordinary one, were able to endure the pain almost 50 percent longer.
Cursers also exhibited accelerated heart rates and decreased pain perception, perhaps due to a beneficial "flight or fight" response that downplays threats.
But follow-up research suggests that pain reduction is greatest in infrequent swearers, while those who commonly curse receive little or no benefit.
"Swearing is useful," said Keele psychologist Richard Stephens. "But don't overdo it."
The Truth About Oil and Water
BP's Gulf of Mexico oil spill may have disproved the old saw about oil calming troubled waters. Now that embattled company, along with scientists from MIT, Texas A & M University, and the University of Hawaii, have won the chemistry Ig Nobel by proving that oil and water do mix.
"If the ocean were motionless, then [Gulf] oil would rise quickly to the surface and not mix into the ocean," explained Scott Socolofsky of Texas A&M University.
"But the experiments we conducted, and field studies, show that ocean currents and density differences cause those small droplets of oil [which comprise much of the plumes] to actually leave the plume."
The findings are another blow to some scientists' claims that little oil would remain trapped underwater because the lighter-than-water substance would quickly rise to the surface.
Socolofsky added, however, that it may be a good thing that lots of oil mixed and remained under the surface, where it can be more easily degraded by microbes and have less of an impact on wildlife in the surface and along shorelines.
Roller Coaster Riders Breathe Easier
Asthma sufferers are accustomed to taking medication or perhaps keeping a nebulizer at hand, but researchers from the Netherlands claimed the medicine prize by pioneering an unusual treatment for such symptoms—the roller coaster ride.
"Negative emotions before a roller coaster ride were associated with breathlessness," explained Simon Rietveld of the University of Amsterdam, noting this was true even in patients with no history of respiratory problems.
"But we also learned that the positive emotions after a roller coaster ride are associated with a lack of breathlessness—even in patients with a history [of asthma]."
Beards Not Best Lab Attire
Meanwhile, scientists from Fort Detrick, Maryland, won the public health honor for experiments showing that microbes cling to bearded researchers.
That's because facial hair is more resistant to cleansing after exposure in a laboratory setting. Hirsute scientists, they warned, should be extra-cautious in cleansing facial hair so as not to become unwitting carriers of laboratory microbes.
The Fort Detrick team and other winners received a cash award for the first time in Ig Nobel History—a staggering ten trillion dollars was paid out to each winner. Unfortunately theses funds consisted of Zimbabwean dollars.
In 2009 Gideon Gono, governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, won mathematics honors in absentia for adopting creative currency. Due to runaway inflation, Zimbabwe's bank notes ranged in denominations from one cent to a hundred trillion dollars. The currency has since been abandoned.
Can Slime Mold Run our Railways?
In 2008 a team of Japanese and Hungarian researchers won an Ig Nobel for proving that slime mold was able to successfully navigate a maze. This year some of those same scientists returned to show that slime is also able to design an efficient railroad system.
Slime mold was grown on a map of the cities surrounding Tokyo, each stocked with a food supply, and allowed to join them into a network by natural growth.
"We know how humans joined them," said Mark Fricker of Pembroke College, University of Oxford. "Does the slime mold's solution match what we would do?"
Indeed many slime mold networks bore striking resemblance to Tokyo's existing rail network—and the slime's alternative solutions were equally efficient.
By converting the slime's natural patterns into a computer model, scientists may be able to learn about smart transportation network design from a very unlikely source, Fricker explained.
Toshiyuki Nakagaki of Hokkaido University summed up the findings in one of the seven-word descriptions that are an Ig Nobel tradition.
"The blob," he said, "we shouldn't look down upon."
Icy Footwear: Function Over Fashion?
Surprisingly, people are less likely to fall on ice when they wear socks. Even more surprisingly, people gain this benefit by wearing socks on the outside of their shoes or wellies, according to research that won the University of Otago's Lianne Parkin and colleagues the Ig Noble in physics.
On several days each winter the steep streets of Dunedin, New Zealand, become iced over and dangerous for pedestrians.
"Historically some enterprising individuals have actually worn socks over their shoes," she said, adding that consideration of the practice did cause her team to do a lot of laughing and subsequent thinking.
"As public health academics, we felt obliged to conduct a proper investigation," she added. "And we found that this practice really does provide better traction on steep and icy slopes."
Sock-wearing study subjects showed far more confidence that traditionally shod pedestrians, and none fell—even as many of those wearing socks the "right way" slid to the ground.
Random Promotions Up Efficiency?
Ever felt your employer promotes people with absolutely no consideration to their competence? Take heart—scientists from Italy's University of Catania have shown that you work for an extremely efficient organization.
The team won the management prize by showing that organizations are more efficient if they simply promote people at random rather than by merit.
The Peter principle, subject of a popular 1969 book, posits that in a hierarchy, each employee will rise to the level of incompetence. "It follows from this that every position tends to be occupied by a person who is incompetent to carry out his or her duties," explained Andrea Rapisarda.
Rapisarda's group found a strange solution—promoting people at random. By creating computer models of a 160-person corporation, they found such a system produced a more efficient organization than merit-based advances. Alternately promoting the very best and the very worst workers was also an improvement on the standard merit model.
The reason, Rapisarda said, is that you just can't know if people will be good in their new jobs because they were good in their old ones—so random promotions actually up the odds for overall efficiency.
"The idea is that if someone is working really well, it's better not to move them, give them rewards but keep them in place. Someone who's a good doctor may not be a good hospital administrator," he said.
Frisky Fruit Bats
Biologist Gareth Jones of the U.K.'s University of Bristol and several Chinese colleagues found that fellatio—a bedroom practice enjoyed by some humans—is practiced by some species of fruit bats as well.
"We don't know exactly why bats perform fellatio," Jones said.
One theory suggests that female saliva may be used to kill bacteria. Another is that the act somehow enables females to genetically size up the suitability of their mates.
Observations from the study also suggest that females may simply be using the technique to get what they want from their mates, he said.
"Each second of fellatio added six seconds to copulation time," Jones explained.
"One theory is that maybe this is an example of the female manipulating the male to increase the chances of successful copulation."
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