Frozen knives made out of faeces, vibrating worms and narcissistic eyebrows were among the bizarre scientific studies featured in this year’s Ig Nobel awards.
Harvard University’s annual spoof on the Nobel Prize awards rewards weird, amusing and often gruesome scientific discoveries.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Thursday’s 30th annual Ig Nobel ceremony was a 75-minute pre-recorded virtual event instead of the usual live event at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre.
Despite this, the show managed to maintain some of the event’s traditions, including flying paper aeroplanes and real Nobel Prize laureates handing out the awards.
The night’s most memorable award was given to a US-based researcher for concluding that ‘knives manufactured from frozen human faeces do not work’.
This year’s winners also included a team of Dutch and Belgian researchers who looked at why the sound of chewing drives people mad.
Another international team were rewarded for documenting how a Chinese alligator’s vocalisations change in a chamber filled with helium-enriched air.
The Ig Nobel award winning researcher concluded last year that ‘knives manufactured from frozen human feces do not work’
Just like previous Ig Nobel awards, the winners are given a budget trophy and a defunct $10 trillion Zimbabwean note.
Ig Nobel organisers mailed each winner a document that they could print out and assemble into this year’s cube-shaped trophy.
Much like the Nobel Awards, the Ig Nobels winners are awarded under several categories.
Under the Materials Science category this year, Metin Eren, an assistant professor of anthropology at Kent State University in Ohio, was awarded for fashioning a knife out of frozen human faeces.
Eren and his team aimed to recreate the story of an Inuit man in Canada who fashioned a knife out of his own excrement to butcher a dog.
They used real human faeces, frozen to -50°C, and filed it to a sharp edge before trying to cut meat with it – without much success.
Marc Abrahams (top left), the master of ceremonies, presenting the awards to Richard S. Vetter (bottom right), a former research associate in the Department of Entomology at the University of California
When they tried to slice meat, the knife-edge ‘simply melted upon contact, leaving streaks of faecal matter’.
‘The poop knives failed miserably,’ Eren said. ‘There’s not a lot of basis empirically for this fantastic story.
‘The point of this was to show that evidence and fact checking are vital,’ he said of his research, which was published in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports last year.
Eren attended the Ig Nobel ceremony in 2003 when he was an undergraduate student at Harvard, so he was thrilled to finally win an award of his own.
‘To be honest, it was a dream come true,’ he said.
In the Entomology category, Rchard Vetter won an Ig Nobel for his paper looking at why people who spend their lives studying insects are creeped out by spiders.
His paper, ‘Arachnophobic Entomologists: When Two More Legs Makes a Big Difference,’ appeared in the the journal American Entomologist in 2013.
Vetter, a retired research associate and spider specialist who worked in the entomology department at the University of California Riverside for 32 years, found during the course of his work that many insect lovers hate spiders.
‘It always struck me as funny that when I talked to entomologists about spiders, they would say something along the lines of “oh, I hate spiders!”‘ he said.
Many bug lovers have had a negative experience with a spider, including bites and nightmares, he claimed.
In Physics, two Russian researchers were awarded for determining what happens to the shape of a living earthworm when it is subjected to high-frequency vibrations.
Researchers replicated their experiments for the show using worm chew sweets
Their study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, tested four common species of earthworm ‘to demonstrate that vertical vibration of living worms lying horizontally on a flat solid surface’.
‘The body starts to wobble and we used light and a photodetector to measure the vibration,’ said Ivan Maksymov at the University of Swinburne, Australia.
‘We had a difficult time trying to understand what these results might be good for,’ added co-author Andriy Pototsky, also at Swinburne.
This year’s Ig Nobel prize for Medical Education was shared by a group of world leaders including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin for their attitudes to the current pandemic.
‘These are all individuals who realised that their judgement is better than the judgement of people who have been studying this their entire lives, and were more insistent about it,’ said Marc Abrahams, Ig Nobel creator, organiser and master of ceremonies.
Abrahams made efforts to reach out to the world leaders to accept their awards, with no luck.
‘It would have been fun for them to take part,’ he said.
Meanwhile, Stephan Reber from the University of Vienna and colleagues scooped up the Acoustics prize for research on whether reptiles could reveal clues about their body size through their vocalisations.
The two winners in the Physics category (right) with their mailed paper cube-shaped trophy and defunct $10 trillion Zimbabwean note
Mark Robertson, from St Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park in Florida, who was also involved in the research, said: ‘The question was whether alligators have vocal tract resonances like human speech.
‘The key is that sound travels faster in helium this makes the air passages seem shorter making the resonances higher.
‘So if you breathe helium and the frequency shifts upward, that shows that there are resonances.’
The team found that much like humans, alligators sound different when inhaling helium.
‘To the best of our knowledge, our study is the first to show that all alligators sound strange when inhaling a party balloon,’ said Reber.
From the UK, Chris Watkins, a psychologist at the University of Abertay in Dundee, shared the Economics prize with eight other authors involved in a study on French kissing.
Their research, published in Scientific Reports last year, found French kissing was more common between partners in places that had high income equality.
‘The hard part is getting alligators to breathe helium’, said the researchers who won the ‘Acoustics’ prize
And Damiaan Denys and his colleagues earned the Ig Nobel in Medicine for pioneering a new psychiatric diagnosis called ‘misophonia’, which refers to getting annoyed by noises other people make.
Denys, a psychiatrist at the University of Amsterdam who specialises in patients with anxiety, compulsive and impulsive disorders, was inspired by a former patient who became so enraged by people who sneezed that she felt like killing them.
‘I had a lot of knowledge about compulsive disorder but these complaints did not meet any existing clinical picture,’ he said.
In Psychology, a North American team were awarded devising a method to identify narcissists by examining their eyebrows, documented in Journal of Personality.
They found perceptions of narcissism changed when swapping narcissists’ and non‐narcissists’ eyebrows between faces.
Of all the Ig Nobel winners since the inaugural ceremony in 1991, one of Abrahams’ favourites is the winner of the Biology prize in 2003.
Kees Moeliker, a Dutch biologist and director of the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam, was awarded for what was the first scientifically reported case of homosexual necrophilia in the Mallard duck.
‘Everything about it is wonderful,’ Abrahams told Laboratory News in an interview last year.
‘Reading his paper it’s clear there are only two possibilities – one is whoever wrote this is truly insane or this person is one of the subtlest and most deadpan writers who has ever lived.’
IG NOBELS 2020: THE FULL WINNERS
ACOUSTICS PRIZE Stephan Reber et al, for inducing a female Chinese alligator to bellow in an airtight chamber filled with helium-enriched air.
PSYCHOLOGY PRIZE Miranda Giacomin and Nicholas Rule, for devising a method to identify narcissists by examining their eyebrows.
PEACE PRIZE The governments of India and Pakistan, for having their diplomats surreptitiously ring each other’s doorbells in the middle of the night, and then run away before anyone had a chance to answer the door.
PHYSICS PRIZE Ivan Maksymov and Andriy Pototsky, for determining, experimentally, what happens to the shape of a living earthworm when one vibrates the earthworm at high frequency.
ECONOMICS PRIZE Christopher Watkins et al for trying to quantify the relationship between different countries’ national income inequality and the average amount of mouth-to-mouth kissing.
MANAGEMENT PRIZE To a gang of five professional hitmen in Guangxi, China, who subcontracted a hit job to each other without actually performing the murder.
ENTOMOLOGY PRIZE Richard Vetter, for collecting evidence that many entomologists (scientists who study insects) are afraid of spiders, which are not insects.
MEDICINE PRIZE Nienke Vulink et al for diagnosing a long-unrecognised medical condition: Misophonia, the distress at hearing other people make chewing sounds.
MEDICAL EDUCATION PRIZE Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Boris Johnson of the UK, Narendra Modi of India, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, Donald Trump of the US, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Vladimir Putin of Russia, and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow of Turkmenistan, for using the Covid-19 viral pandemic to teach the world that politicians can have a more immediate effect on life and death than scientists and doctors can.
MATERIALS SCIENCE PRIZE Metin Eren et al for showing that knives manufactured from frozen human faeces do not work well.
This year’s winners will be giving a series of informal lectures online in the coming days, revealing more about their particular study.
The lecture schedule will be made available on the Ig Nobel website.
More info: Ig Nobel 2020