By Teodor Teofilov
The 2019 Ig Nobel Prizes were awarded at the 29th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, on Sept 12, 2019, at the Harvard Sanders Theatre, which fits 1,110 people. These awards “honor achievements that make people laugh, and then think,” and that is the only criteria for winning. They are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative and stimulate people’s interest in science, medicine and technology.
The satirical prize has been awarded annually since 1991 to celebrate 10 unusual or trivial achievements in scientific research. The name of the award is a pun on the Nobel Prize and the word ignoble, which means not noble/ common.
The Ig Nobel Prizes are organized by the scientific humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research and co-sponsored by the Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students and the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association.
The awards take place every September and are physically handed out by genuine Nobel Laureates and it is broadcast live online.
The Ig Nobel Prize was created by Marc Abrahams, editor and co-founder of the Annals of Improbable Research, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Irreproducible Results and master of the awards ceremonies.
“Every year, we get in the neighborhood of 9,000 new nominations for the Ig Nobel prize,” Abrahams explained in a Ted Talk. “Of those, consistently between 10 percent and 20 percent of those nominations are people who nominate themselves. Those self-nominees almost never win. It’s very difficult, numerically, to win a prize if you want to. Even if you don’t want to, it’s very difficult numerically. You should know that when we choose somebody to win an Ig Nobel prize, We get in touch with that person, very quietly. We offer them the chance to decline this great honor if they want to. Happily for us, almost everyone who’s offered a prize decides to accept.”
The 2019 Ig Nobel Prize Winners
Medicine Prize (Italy, Netherlands):
Silvano Gallus, head of the Laboratory of Lifestyle Epidemiology within the Department of Environmental Health Sciences of the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research in Milan, and his team won the Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine for their research on pizza. Their research looked into whether pizza can protect against illness and death. Of course, all pizza lovers, which is basically all of us, would be exalted at such a seemingly unlikely prospect. The researchers found that the famous dish could indeed lower the risk of some cancers and heart attack, but there is a catch — the pizza must have been made and eaten in Italy, which I’m sure Gallus had no pleasure in discovering.
The team didn’t lack takers and published three papers on the subject: “Does Pizza Protect Against Cancer?“, “Pizza and Risk of Acute Myocardial Infarction,” and “Pizza Consumption and the Risk of Breast, Ovarian and Prostate Cancer.”
Medical Education Prize (USA):
It turns out methods used to train dogs can be used on… surgeons. Now you might hope that it would be more difficult than that, but the Karen Pryor, an American author who specialized in behavioral psychology and marine mammal biology, and Theresa McKeon, of TAGteach International, found that the popular technique with dog trainers of “clicker training” can be more effective than being taught through demonstration alone. Medical students that were trained using clicker training in two orthopedic surgical skills outperformed the control group that learned through demonstration alone. However, the first group did so more slowly than the control group.
You can read about their work in their paper titled “Is Teaching Simple Surgical Skills Using an Operant Learning Program More Effective Than Teaching by Demonstration?”
Biology Prize (Singapore, China, Germany, Australia, Poland, USA, Bulgaria):
We all know that birds sense and use the Earth’s magnetic field, however this ability seems to not only be limited to them. There are some bacteria known to use magnetic fields for orientation and other insects.
An international team was analyzing the American cockroach, which also has this ability, found out that alive and dead cockroaches have different magnetic properties. Although at face value this might seem to have little value in the way of potential applications, the findings could help in the development of magnetic sensors.
All of this is detailed in the paper “In-Vivo Biomagnetic Characterisation of the American Cockroach.”
Anatomy Prize (France):
Roger Mieusset and Bourras Bengoudifa, both part of the Research Group in Human Fertility in the Paul Sabatier University, won the Ig Nobel Anatomy Prize for showing that not only is it common for one testicle to be bigger than the other and one to hang lower, but this asymmetry also extends to the temperature of the scrotum.
They got the help of postmen and bus drivers, who allowed probes to be connected to their crotch and temperatures recorded. The study found that there was a lack of thermal symmetry in the scrotum no matter if the person was clothed or naked.
You can learn more about why one testicle is hotter than the other in the paper “Thermal asymmetry of the human scrotum.”
Chemistry Prize (Japan):
Ever wondered exactly how much saliva a five-year-old can produce in a single day? Well, you are no longer alone in your quest for knowledge. A team of Japanese researchers has shared in your fascination and decided to find out. They enlisted 15 boys and 15 girls and measured their salivary volume for two days. Not sure how this helps in raising kids, but the estimated volume produced per day was about 500 ml, which most parents would tell you this is a gross underestimation.
You can find out how exactly they measured the saliva, and maybe try measuring your kids’ in their paper, “Estimation of the total saliva volume produced in five-year-old children.”
Engineering Prize (Iran):
One of the hardest things that new parents have to do is also the most disgusting — changing diapers. Well, fear not for the Engineering Prize went to Iman Farahbakhsh, who invented a diaper-changing machine. Now before all you parents start getting your hopes up, the machine doesn’t actually change the child’s diaper. Unfortunately, it’s more of a restraining device that looks like a dishwasher, where the child is seated so that the manual task can be performed by human power. This unique machine also has a sprinkler that washes at least a part of the mini-human and dries them. You can see the patent application here.
Economics Prize (Turkey, The Netherlands, Germany):
People in the food industry are told to not handle food directly after handling money, and that is done with a good reason. Money is one of the most frequently handled and passed around items on Earth and they can pick up all sorts of bacteria. However, not all currencies are equal.
Some countries have stuck with paper money made from cotton fiber, while many others have switched to plastic banknotes for their security and durability. No one even considered pathogens. Habip Gedik, Timothy A. Voss and Andreas Voss tested which country’s paper money is best at transmitting dangerous bacteria. They found that polymer notes, specifically the Romanian Leu, are worse than their paper counterparts for carrying multi-drug resistant pathogens.
Read their findings in “Money and Transmission of Bacteria.”
Peace Prize (UK, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, USA):
An international team of researchers tried to quantify pain and pleasure, which is extremely hard to do as they are subjective. To be more precise, they attempted to measure the pleasure of scratching an itch. The team induced itching using cowhage spicules to find itch intensity and the pleasure from scratching that itch.
They found that it differed based on location — the itch and pleasure rating were higher for the ankle and back compared to the hand. The pleasure from scratching an itch on the ankle was also longer than on the back of the forearm. Their paper is titled “The pleasurability of scratching an itch: a psychological and topographical assessment.”
Psychology Prize (Germany):
Germany gave us Wilhelm Wundt and the first laboratory dedicated to psychology in 1879 and now Fritz Stack’s research. This prize was a long time in the making, as in 1988 Stack was a part of a team that published a study that found that facial expression can have an effect on emotional experiences.
The study involved having participants hold a pen in their mouth in a way that makes them smile, which resulted in them finding a cartoon funnier. However, 30 years later, after unsuccessful attempts to replicate the findings, Stack admitted in another paper that there was no significant effect, and “the original effect was weak and fragile, not robust enough to show up under changing conditions.”
He won the award for discovering that holding a pen in one’s mouth makes one smile, which makes one happier — and then discovering that it does not. The first paper is “Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: a nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis,” and the second paper is “From Data to Truth in Psychological Science. A Personal Perspective.”
Physics Prize (USA, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, UK):
The mystery of how, and why, wombats produce cube-shaped poo has mystified scientists for years. Wombats are unique for being the only animal in the world to produce cubic poo (which is something I’m sure you were dying to know). Now we know how. An international team of researchers has finally uncovered exactly how this quiet animal produces its square feces, and the discovery could lead to novel manufacturing techniques.
The team found that it has to do with the way it stretches its intestine. The researchers still aren’t sure why the marsupial has evolved to excrete cubes, with the belief being that it can be more easily stacked and act as a way to mark territory, but the fact that they have discovered how can lead to the development of new manufacturing processes.
You can get fully engrossed in the science in their paper “How Do Wombats Make Cubed Poo?”