Sometimes, science is very, very serious—it makes fortunes, asks the big questions and saves lives. But science is done by scientists, and sometimes you have to fall down a rabbit hole to solve a problem. And when a bunch of humans, with all their human quirks, are guided by the overarching question "What if?," there usually isn't a straight line between question and answer.
At the same time, research that seems absurd can have important implications for science as a whole. (Remember, the world's first antibiotic, penicillin, was originally "mold juice.")
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 years have honored research on the psychology of lying, un-boiling eggs, the ubiquity of the word huh and turning old ammunition into diamonds, among many other accomplishments. Unlike the Nobel Prizes they riff on, the categories vary each year, and people can be honored after their death.
During a ceremony Thursday, this year's winners were announced by a collection of actual Nobel Prize winners. Here's the research the committee selected:
- A paper called "On the Rheology of Cats," which 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."
- About 5 percent of people have sleep apnea, a breathing condition in which their airways collapse during the night, waking them up. 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.
- The economics prize went to the researchers behind a paper with the truly 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 3-foot-long crocodile increased bets in certain gamblers but decreased them in gamblers who admitted to more negative feelings. Please do not try this at home.
- About two decades ago, 19 British doctors got together to ask whether—and if so, why—old men have big ears. The resulting paper has now received the Ig Nobel for anatomy. When the paper was originally 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 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 cave insects 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 key science priority—and this year's winner in fluid dynamics investigated how coffee sloshes when you walk backward.
- 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 regularly snacked on human blood. They warn the bat's habit could spread rabies.
- 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. So 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 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 recognize both faces just as strongly.
- Remember when playing your unborn baby Mozart 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.