Crazy little thing called Science

Who says academic research can’t be fun? The Ig Nobel prizes, recently presented at Aarhus University, award science that makes people laugh, then think

Words and video editing by Sofia Lotto Persio
Images by Lotte Kamphuis

Ig Nobel prize's creator Marc Abrahams: “We called them shows because people would not come if we called them lectures.”

Ig Nobel prize’s creator Marc Abrahams: “We called them shows because people would not come if we called them lectures.”

Many people may not know about it, but scientists finally found the cure for hiccups: a study showed that “digital rectum massages” help “terminating intractable hiccups.” No, it is not a joke. It is the serious, though unusual, study that won Doctor Francis Fesmire the Ig Nobel (read as ‘ignoble’) prize in Medicine in 2006.

Dr. Fesmire was neither the first nor the last winner of the satirical award, which started honouring bizarre research in 1991. Three recent Ig Nobel laureate joined the creator of the prize, Marc Abrahams, in a European tour of shows that touched Aarhus University on March 24th and 25th. “We called them shows because people would not come if we called them lectures,” said Abrahams to Jutland Station, yet “These are some of the best science lectures in the world.”

Those who attended the show were treated to two hours of informative fun. Abrahams first introduced the Ig Nobel prizes: the idea for the awards came from his job as editor of the Improbable Research Journal, which involved looking over many unusual studies: “I thought it was a shame that no recognition would be awarded to these people, who in fact have done some pretty incredible work.”

An example of one of the researches that won the psychology prize

An example of one of the researches that won the psychology prize

After more than 20 years of awards, the Ig Nobel prizes have established themselves as a yearly event celebrated at Harvard University to which the academic/scientific community looks forward, and even the slightly more famous Nobel laureates participate in the event handing out the awards to their Ig Nobel colleagues.

The three researchers’ work presented at the show in Aarhus perfectly expresses the spirit of the awards. Dr. Masanori Niimi and his team from Tokyo University won the Ig Nobel in Medicine last year for probing that listening to opera is more effective than listening to Enya, or even Mozart, in helping heart-transplant patients who are mice in the recovery process.

As this kind of research takes time, so far Dr. Niimi can only infer about the beneficial effects of La Traviata, his favourite opera, but he promises that experiments involving Tosca will follow soon. Dr. Niimi was very positive about receiving the prize: “It is an honour, for me and for the lab.” His team was actually so supportive that they attended the award ceremony dressed up as mice holding hearts in their arms and they delighted the crowd with an opera performance, too.

Educator Brian Crandall also owes his award to small mammals. He won the Ig Nobel prize for Archaeology along with Peter Stahl for an undergraduate paper he wrote 20 years ago on “Human Digestive Effects on a Micromammalian Skeleton.” One of the authors (you can imagine who, between an undergraduate and an estimated professor), parboiled a shrew, cut it in three pieces, swallowed them, and later examined his own faeces (referred to as “the material”) for the following days to observe to which extent the human digestive system is able to process small mammals’ bones. The results were, according to Crandall, fairly astonishing, given that the longest and hardest bones were dissolved in the digestive system and only small ones remained, showing that human digestion had much more severe effects on bones than previously expected.

Brian’s paper not only represented a breakthrough in science, but also inspired a campaign to demand better rights for undergraduate researchers. “A petition to promote better rights for undergraduate researchers was circulating when my sister was an undergraduate, and the paper I wrote was used as evidence of harsh working conditions. The petitioners thought I was somehow forced to do it,” Crandall tells Jutland Station, smiling. “My sister had to disappoint them and tell them that, in fact, I was more than willing to do it.” Although Crandall’s experiment became quite popular in the scientific community and has been cited more than 50 times, he tends not to keep quiet about his involvement in the research: “I told my girlfriend at the time and once we broke up she told my friends about it, and when they asked me if I really did swallow a shrew, I viciously denied it. Now that I came on tour to Europe I had to tell people what this was about, though.”

Still, no researcher’s life changed as much as curator Kees Moeliker’s due to the awards. On the fateful day of 5 March 1995, which is now officially celebrated as Dead Duck Day, Moeliker was in his office at the Rotterdam Natural History Museum when a duck crashed into the glass window of the museum, which had become a death trap for birds. Then, something unexpected happened: a male duck mounted the other male duck’s corpse and started a copulation which lasted 75 minutes. In his long career, Moeliker never heard of necrophiliac behaviour between animals, so he took pen, paper, and camera to document what has since been known as “the first case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck”. Moeliker’s publication not only caused a spur in the scientific community and won him the Ig Nobel prize for Biology in 2003, but also inspired many to send him pictures and accounts of remarkable animal behaviour, so he was able to become an expert on the topic.

He is now able to conclude that animals are not actively engaging in necrophiliac behaviour, but are not aware that their partner is dead. Usually the intercourse happens within a short time from the death and with animals whose death pose is sexually inviting. Homosexuality, instead, is simply a natural occurrence in the animal kingdom, he remarked.

Moeliker is now the Head of the European Bureau for Ig Nobel prizes, helping in the selection of the winners. One of his favourite is the research of Geoffrey Miller and Brent Jordan, psychologists at the University of New Mexico, who proved that lap dancers’ earnings depend on their ovulating cycle, winning the Economics award in 2008.

Categories for the Ig Nobel awards are as diverse, though not as constant, as that for the Nobel prize. Ig Nobel prize for Literature, for instance, was not awarded in 2013 – comprehensibly, as it is difficult to top the 2012 winner: the US Government General Accountability Office, for issuing a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports.

Still, the awards receive increasing attention both in the US and abroad (Japan and Sweden are two countries in which the media coverage is extensive), so much that research institutions sometimes submit their own studies in hope to win and get some public attention. Self-nominations, however, are discouraged, as “They seldom win.”

Abrahams actually hopes to get more and more people involved in nominating a research: “Most people just do not pay enough attention… But we know there is more stuff out there that we have yet to see.”

Do you have an improbable research to submit to the Ig Nobel committee’s attention? Find here how. The complete list of Ig Nobel prize winners and their work can instead be found here.

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Sofia Lotto Persio is an eclectic journalist whose passions include, but are not limited to, politics, gender issues, and cultural events. She has worked for expat and student publications in the Netherlands and for Transitions Online, an online magazine covering the former communist countries of Europe and Central Asia. Her portfolio can be found at http://sofiaswords.wordpress.com/

Lotte Kamphuis is a journalism student and freelancer, currently based in Denmark. She previously studied in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom and worked as a crossmedia editor for various organizations, including Amnesty International.

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