Sword Swallowers, Belly Buttons and Flatulent Fish: the Ig Nobel prizes

9 Dec

In a world where high-speed neutrinos and melting ice caps hog the limelight, it’s sometimes nice to pay tribute to the sillier side of science. Because for every Einstein there’s a physicist trying to understand why toast always lands butter-side down; for every Darwin, a biologist who studies fish farts.

Once a year, scientists come together to honour the unsung heroes of science, awarding ‘Ig Nobel’ prizes to achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think”. A parody of the Nobel Prizes, these awards celebrate science that is eccentric, bizarre, or just downright ridiculous ­– studies “that cannot, or should not, be reproduced”.

The Ig Nobel awards – making people laugh, and then making them think (credit: Improbable Research)

I’ve been wanting to write a blog post about the Ig Nobels for a while. So, here it is at last – a rundown of my all-time favourite prizewinners. Happy holidays!

#10: The alarm clock that runs away. Economics prize, 2005.

It’s 7 a.m. on a chilly Monday morning and your alarm clock springs into life. Groaning, you hit the snooze button and snuggle deeper into your duvet, promising yourself just fifteen minutes more dozing time. But before you know it, your clock is chiming 11 a.m., you’ve got a hungry cat pawing at your face, and a boss leaving irate messages on your voicemail.

Another alarm clock goes AWOL (credit: Bethan Phillips)

It’s a common situation, but one that could be a thing of the past if Gauri Nanda gets her way. She is the designer of ‘Clocky’, an alarm clock that runs away, hides, and carries on ringing until you get out of bed to shut it up.

The Ig Nobel judges believe that many wasted work hours would be saved if everyone owned one of these ingenious (or infuriating?) devices.

#9: Ostriches get randy with humans. Biology prize, 2002.

During the 1990s, some worried British poultry farmers couldn’t understand why their ostriches were refusing to breed.

An inquisitive ostrich (credit: Abllo)

A team of biologists came to the rescue by showing that the male ostriches were actually directing their amorous courtship displays towards female humans rather than to their lonely ostrich partners.

This bizarre behaviour was thought to be due to British farming procedures: the ostrich eggs were hatched in incubators, meaning that the baby ostriches spent more time getting to know the female technicians than their own species.

#8: The perils of sword swallowing. Medicine prize, 2007.

Brian Witcombe and Dan Meyer won an Ig Nobel prize for their extensive medical survey of sword swallowing injuries.

Sword swallowing: may cause sore throats (credit: Mike Connor)

Nearly half of the interviewed sword swallowers complained of sore throats (surely the least of their worries!), but more serious injuries included perforation of the gullet and intestinal bleeding. Lovely.

The researchers concluded that major complications are more likely when the sword swallower is “distracted” or “swallows multiple or unusual swords”.

#7: Country music makes people kill themselves. Medicine prize, 2004.

Many of us would agree that too much bad country music can lead to feelings of despair. However, one study has taken this a step further by showing that the amount of radio airtime devoted to country music is linked to suicide rate in American cities.

Patsy Montana serenades a campfire

Sociologists Steven Stack and Jim Gundlach believe that the depressive themes of many country songs – marital strife, alcoholism and work problems, for example – can trigger suicidal thoughts: conclusive proof, if ever you needed any, that too much of the Dixie Chicks is a bad thing.

#6: Herrings communicate by farting. Biology prize, 2004.

Parp! It might not win you many friends in polite society, but for herrings, farting is an essential means of communication.

Underwater bubbles...did a herring just fart? (Credit: Duncan Rawlinson)

In 2003, marine biologists in Canada and Sweden independently found that herrings make high-frequency sounds by releasing air through their anuses. The researchers noticed that herrings farted when shrouded in darkness or when surrounded by lots of other fish, thus helping them to communicate and form protective shoals.

Whether this behaviour will ever transfer to humans remains to be seen, but you could always try it out the next time you go down your local swimming pool…

#5: The bra that doubles as a face mask. Public health prize, 2009.

The irrefutable highlight of the 2009 Ig Nobel awards ceremony was the sight of three distinguished scientists standing onstage with bras strapped to their faces.

These poor souls were demonstrating the Emergency Bra, the brainchild of Elena Bodnar. In the event of a public health crisis, the bra can be removed and converted into two face masks – one for the wearer, and one for their chosen companion.

Elena Bodnar's emergency bra: for the discerning, health-conscious couple

Elena claims that her revolutionary bra “frees a survivor’s hands to keep balance while running”, as well as reducing the chance of panic attacks by “providing the wearer with a sense of security and protection”. She forgets to mention that the wearer also looks like a bit of a tit.

#4: Why does toast land butter-side down? Physics prize, 1996.

After one too many ruined breakfasts, Robert Matthews of Aston University decided to apply his scientific mind to the perennial problem: why does a dropped slice of toast always seem to land buttered side first?

Murphy's law strikes again (credit: Yuki)

His conclusion? Toast has a tendency to land butter-side down because it rotates as it falls off the edge of the table. If the table was higher (three metres high, for example), the problem would disappear because the toast would be able to make a full rotation before hitting the floor.

Although we humans aren’t made for such gigantic tables, Matthews offers a few novel solutions to the problem. These include “eating tiny squares of toast”, “putting the butter on the underside”, and “tying the toast to a cat, which of course knows how to get right-side up during a fall.”

#3: The slowest experiment in history. Physics prize, 2005.

In 1927, Thomas Parnell began an experiment at the University of Queensland which still runs today, making it the world’s longest continuously running laboratory experiment.

The set-up is simple: an extremely gloopy substance called ‘pitch’ slowly flows through a funnel. The first drop fell in December 1938, eight years after the funnel was opened. Since then, there have been seven more drops, the latest being in November 2000.

A magnificently-coiffed lady celebrates drop #6 in 1979 (credit: University of Queensland)

Scientists use the pitch drop experiment to show that some apparently solid materials can flow, albeit very slowly (the viscosity of pitch is around 230 billion times that of water).

Meanwhile, the world waits with bated breath for drop number nine.

#2: The great belly button fluff survey. Interdisciplinary research prize, 2002.

In late 2000, Karl Kruszelnicki (‘Dr. Karl’) of the University of Sydney ran a nationwide survey to address a crucial question: “what causes belly button fluff?”.

A prime specimen of belly button fluff (credit: practicalowl)

The survey, answered by nearly 5,000 people, showed that you’re more likely to have belly button fluff if you’re male, older, hairy, and have an ‘innie’.

It is thought that men are more likely than women to get fluff lodged in their navel because loose clothing fibres are channelled by the ‘snail trail’ that runs from the belly button to the male pubic region. Indeed, men accounted for 73% of all people with belly button fluff.

But one key question remains unanswered: why does the fluff always seem to be blue?

#1: London cabbies have super-developed brains. Medicine prize, 2003.

It’s true…London taxi drivers have a more developed brain than the average person.

The quintessential London cabbie (credit: Fimb)

I’ve put this one at #1 because, although it may sound like another silly study, it’s also a genuinely important development in our understanding of the human brain. In other words, it’s a perfect Ig Nobel prize winner – a study that manages to be both funny and innovative at the same time.

So why are neuroscientists interested in studying London cabbies? It’s all because of ‘The Knowledge’ – the gruelling trial that every wannabe taxi driver must pass before being able to drive one of the legendary black cabs. This consists of memorising 320 routes along London’s 25,000 streets, as well as all nearby landmarks and places of interest.

Drivers train for up to four years before taking the test, racing around the capital on a scooter until every last route has been committed to memory. This wouldn’t be such a difficult task in a place like New York City, where the roads are numbered and gridded, but on London’s gloriously haphazard streets it’s an undertaking of epic proportions.

A mini minicab (credit: lmg123)

When Eleanor Maguire and colleagues at University College London carried out brain scans of taxi drivers, they discovered that part of the hippocampus, a structure in the brain associated with memory and navigation, is larger in cabbies – and that this region even grows with taxi driving experience. Their conclusion: the information acquired during The Knowledge physically changes a cabbie’s brain!

And this week, more than a decade after their Ig Nobel prize-winning study, the same team of researchers published a follow-up study in which they focused on trainee taxi drivers, carrying out brain scans both before and after the cabbies’ extensive training. Out of the 79 trainees, only around 50% passed The Knowledge, and these successful taxi drivers were found to have the same hippocampus changes as seen in previous studies. On the other hand, the failed cabbies had no brain structure differences.

These results are all very exciting for neuroscientists because they show that the brain can exhibit ‘plastic’ behaviour, changing its structure in response to stimulation. This is good news for people who want to learn new skills later in life, and it could also lead to new ways of rehabilitating patients with brain injuries or diseases such as Parkinson’s.

So, this goes to show that silly science can also be very useful science – you just have to fight your way past sword swallowers, amorous ostriches, and convertible lingerie in order to find it.

Further reading:

ResearchBlogging.orgBubier NE, Paxton CG, Bowers P, & Deeming DC (1998). Courtship behaviour of ostriches (Struthio camelus) towards humans under farming conditions in Britain. British Poultry Science, 39 (4), 477-81 PMID: 9800029

ResearchBlogging.orgEdgeworth R, Dalton BJ, & Parnell T (1984). The pitch drop experiment. European Journal of Physics, 198-200.

ResearchBlogging.orgMaguire EA, Gadian DG, Johnsrude IS, Good CD, Ashburner J, Frackowiak RS, & Frith CD (2000). Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 97 (8), 4398-403 PMID: 10716738

ResearchBlogging.orgMatthews R (1995). Tumbling toast, Murphy’s Law and the fundamental constants. European Journal of Physics, 16 (4), 172-176.

ResearchBlogging.orgStack S, & Gundlach J (1992). The effect of country music on suicide. Social Forces, 71 (1) DOI: 10.2307/2579974

ResearchBlogging.orgWilson B, Batty RS, & Dill LM (2004). Pacific and Atlantic herring produce burst pulse sounds. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society, 271 Suppl 3 PMID: 15101430

ResearchBlogging.orgWitcombe B, & Meyer D (2006). Sword swallowing and its side effects. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 333 (7582), 1285-7 PMID: 17185708

ResearchBlogging.orgWoollett K, & Maguire EA (2011). Acquiring “the Knowledge” of London’s layout drives structural brain changes. Current Biology.

This article first appeared in the December 2011 edition of Guru Magazine. Download the magazine for free here! The London cabbie section was based on a blog post I wrote in September 2011.

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