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Winners of the Ig Nobel Prize for medicine, dressed as mice, wave from a stage.

Master of ceremonies Marc Abrahams introduces the winners of the Medicine Prize during the annual Ig Nobel prize ceremony at Harvard University Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013 in Cambridge, Mass.

Photograph by Winslow Townson, AP

Audience members throw paper airplanes during the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony.

Audience members throw paper airplanes at the stage during the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. Photograph by Brian Snyder, Reuters

Brian Handwerk

National Geographic

Published September 13, 2013

Opera's healing power, what happens to parboiled shrews after they're eaten, and beetles that consult the stars are among the incredible scientific advances honored September 12 at the Ig Nobel Prizes.

The unique annual awards honor real research "that first makes people laugh, and then makes them think," according to their website. Winners were unveiled at the 23rd annual ceremony at Harvard's venerable Sanders Theater, hosted by the Annals of Improbable Research and several Harvard University student groups.

As usual, a number of genuine Nobel laureates gathered onstage to hand out the coveted prizes in a raucous atmosphere of scientific celebration that was streamed live on NationalGeographic.com. Read on for this year's winners.

Opera Helps Heal Heart Transplant Patients—Who Are Mice

If music soothes the savage beast, it may do the same for the immune system—as long as it's the right music. Mouse heart transplant patients who listened to Verdi's La Traviata survived far longer than those who did not, a Journal of Cardiothoracic Surgery study found.

"A famous opera generated health benefits and prolonged survival. We hope and we believe that these are important results," said Masanori Niimi of Teikyo University in Tokyo, whose team took home the Ig Nobel for Medicine.

The study's deaf mice survived only about a week post transfer, while those who enjoyed opera lived an average of 26 days. Blood tests seemed to show that the music boosted the immune system, providing more evidence, the authors noted, that the brain can control the responses of the immune system.

But the type of music matters. Opera had the most healing effects, the authors noted, but mice who listened to Mozart instead still survived a good 20 days. Those who had Enya played for them, on the other hand, gave up the ghost after only 11 days.

People Who Think They're Drunk Also Think They're More Attractive

"Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder." That's the title and the conclusion of a British Journal of Psychology study that confirmed that people who are drunk, and even people who think they are drunk but aren't, believe that they are more attractive than they did before drinking.


 A scientist poses with a machine used to study drunk people.
A scientist poses with a machine used to study drunk people. The laboratory won for demonstrating that "drunk people think they are more attractive."

Photograph by Philippe Desmazes, AFP/Getty Images

"Previous research has shown that drunk people think others are more attractive, especially potential romantic partners. But our research investigated a different question, whether drunk people think they are more attractive themselves," explained co-author Brad Bushman, a psychologist at Ohio State University.

They did, he reports. But a truly amazing aspect of the findings was that people who only believed they were drunk, but who actually consumed placebo drinks made to taste alcoholic, believed they too were becoming steadily more attractive with each drink—just like their counterparts who really were intoxicated.

"If you believe you are drunk, even without alcohol, you believe you are more attractive," said co-author Laurent Bègue, of the University of Grenoble, France, whose team won the Ig Nobel for Psychology.

Unfortunately for participants, the study showed that self-perception doesn't convince others. The team had sober "judges" observe videos of the various study participants, and determined that both real and imagined drunks didn't appear more attractive. "They think that they are, but they definitely are not," said Bushman.

The study sheds further light on expectations many people associate with their drinking, the authors added, and could be used to help examine and modify drinking-related behaviors.

(Read about a wasabi alarm, beer bottle-loving beetles, doomsday math, and other winners of the 2011 Ig Nobels.)

Dung Beetles Navigate by Milky Way

Lowly dung beetles look to the heavens in order to navigate, using the moon and the bright stripe of the Milky Way galaxy in African skies to guide their ground-based poop rolling pathways, according to research that took top honors in both the Biology and Astronomy categories.

Zoologist Marie Dacke, of Lund University in Sweden, said she and her colleagues knew the beetles could use the moon to navigate but expected them to be lost when it was not visible. When they weren't lost, however, the group stared at the bright African stars and wondered if they served as a "sky compass."

Beetles were put through their paces in a planetarium to find out what would happen when various stars were removed or altered, and it became clear that they used the bright Milky Way to guide themselves in a straight line. "Beetles that have made a dung ball want to get away from a dung pile as quickly as they can, because at the pile other beetles are flying in and they would steal this dung ball if they can," Dacke explained. "The most efficient way to get away is to move straight, and for that you need a compass."

A final field test confirmed the insects' reliance on celestial navigation.

"We also put a cap on them, so they could not see the sky," said co-author Marcus Byrne, an entomologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. "They get lost until you take the hat off them, and then they find their way. A very simple experiment with very striking results."

Humans Can Run on Water—If Both People and Pond Are on the Moon

"As everybody knows, gravity on the moon is only one-sixth of that on the Earth," said co-author Alberto Minetti, who studies physiology at the University of Milan, Italy. "We have found that on the moon, humans could run on water, which only some lizards and birds do on Earth."

Minetti and colleagues created a hydrodynamic model of basilisk lizards running on water and applied it to humans, showing they could also achieve the feat of running across water, despite being enormously different from lizards in size and shape—if only gravity was far less than it is on our own planet.

"You receive an upwards force from the surface of the water," Minetti said, "so this ability depends quite a bit on your weight. In a low-gravity environment, it could be achievable."

The team tested water-walking abilities by equipping volunteers with small fins and suspending them above a pool with hanging devices that simulated lower gravity environments.

Could this Ig Nobel for Physics prize-winning work inspire a leisure activity for future moon colonists and tourists? Perhaps, but it also has applications for biology and exobiology.

"We are trying to understand what we can do with our limbs, and what animals can do with their limbs, in different gravitational fields," Minetti said. "But these kinds of studies help us to better understand what some animals already do here on the Earth, and also what hypothetical animals or extraterrestrial creatures might do elsewhere in the universe."

Scientists Learn Why Onions Make Us Cry—And How to Grow Those That Won't

A "tearless onion" may be closer to reality, thanks to research that unlocked the complicated puzzle of just why onions make us cry in the first place.

"We identified a new enzyme, an unknown enzyme, that actually makes people cry," said Yoshiaki Nagatome, from the Somatech Center of Japan's House Foods Corporation. The study, originally published in Nature, was co-authored by Nagatome and scientists from the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University.

After identifying the enzyme, he added, the team focused on ways to remove it from future onions using genetic technologies. Not only were they successful in creating "no more tears onions," Nagatome reported, but the onions they produced were also improved in other areas.

"The amounts of other compounds, the onion's flavorful and healthful compounds, were actually increased at the same time," he said. But a rather large caveat remains before the research could go mainstream. "These onions are genetically modified, so unfortunately without safety authorizations from the government we can't test them," he said.

"However, theoretically, they should be both more healthful and more flavorful."

Shrew-Eating Scientists Learn Which Bones Our Digestive System Breaks Down

If swallowing a parboiled shrew, without chewing, seems like a lot to sacrifice for science, consider the next step in Brian Crandall's experiment—collecting and analyzing the resulting stool samples. "We very carefully collected for several days, we very carefully filtered what came out, and I'm confident that we didn't miss anything," he said.

When Crandall undertook the study 20 years ago as an undergraduate, he never dreamed it could earn him an Ig Nobel for Archeology. He simply wanted to see how the digestive signature of humans looked on a micromammalian diet.

"You find micromammalian bones all over the world, from all time periods, at every archaeological site," he said. "The question is, how do you interpret them?"

Scientists had long matched remains with digestive signatures they'd created from stool studies of owls, raptors, foxes, and other carnivores, he said, but Crandall hoped to see how the human body digested small mammals that have been a big part of both past and present diets around the world.

He found that, even with no chewing, most of the bones were completely missing after a trip through the human digestive system, including teeth, leg bones, and vertebrae. Others were "severely damaged," like the skull. The findings mean that scientists may have to think a bit differently about some piles of bones they find at sites—and about what bones they're not likely to find.

Crandall, who now runs science education programs for kids at Mad Science, co-authored the research with Peter Stahl, who is now at the University of Victoria (BC), Canada (both were at Binghamton University when they did the study).

Prone Cows More Likely to Stand Up; When They'll Lie Down Is Anyone's Guess

Bert Tolkamp, an animal scientist with SRUC Research in Edinburgh, Scotland, took home the Ig Nobel for Probability with a patient study of the bovine lifestyle. The longer a cow has been lying down, he found, the more likely it is that the cow will soon stand up. On the other hand, he found, once said cow stands up, you cannot easily predict just when it will lie down again.

"We all expected that these cows would be more motivated to lie down the longer they had been standing," Tolkamp said in his acceptance speech. "But these cows just kept hanging around, and they never did what we expected them to do. In a sense that makes it quite interesting."

The study is aimed at understanding animal behavior, but it also holds more practical implications for farmers. Information on standing and lying behaviors, and changes in these behaviors, may help to diagnose health problems, evaluate housing and management techniques, and identify estrus cycles.

(Read about fruit bat fellatio, how cursing functions as a painkiller, whale snot collection, and other winners of the 2010 Ig Nobels.)

Terrorist Trap, Illegal Applause, and a Penile Amputation Epidemic

Sanders Theater was a sellout, and several prizes were handed out in absentia to winners unable to attend. The late Gustano Pizzo won the Ig Nobel in Safety Engineering for an aircraft anti-hijacking system he patented in 1972. The electro-mechanical system would first drop a would-be hijacker through a trapdoor in the plane's floor and then seal him into a package. The system then ejected the hijacker through specially designed bomb bay doors and left him to parachute into the waiting arms of police—who would have been alerted by radio to his imminent arrival.

The Ig Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko, who in 2011 declared it illegal to applaud in public, the better to end otherwise silent "clapping protests" on the streets of the nation's cities. The Belarus State Police shared the award for their zealous enforcement of this edict—which included arresting a one-armed man for clapping.

Finally, the Public Health prize was awarded to a group of Thai doctors who authored the American Journal of Surgery study entitled "Surgical Management of an Epidemic of Penile Amputations in Siam." The authors wrote, "It became fashionable in the decade after 1970 for the humiliated Thai wife to wait until her [philandering] husband fell asleep so that she could quickly sever his penis with a kitchen knife." They added that it wasn’t unusual for the severed members to be thrown underneath the traditional elevated houses, where they were in danger of being consumed by the family's ducks. Fortunately for the husbands concerned, much of the prize-winning study focused on improved surgical techniques for penile reimplantations.

(Read about gas-mask bras, tequila diamonds, and other winners of the 2009 Ig Nobel prizes.)

2 comments
Gary Fisher
Gary Fisher

Surely the seeds of the 2014 Ig Nobel Peace Prize have already been planted in the intriguing plan to bring peace to Syria through cruise missile attacks.

Michael Miller
Michael Miller

Maybe the 2014 Ig Nobel Prize for Education will be given to someone who thinks the proposed attacks on Syria are about bringing peace rather than punishing chemical weapon use.

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