After 33 years, the award continues to celebrate brilliant but unusual scientific research
BY PHIE JACOBS
Why do scientists lick rocks? The answer is disappointingly sensible, says Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist at the University of Leicester. Mineral particles within rocks stand out better on a wet surface than on a dry one, so licking makes rocks easier to identify in the field. And Zalasiewicz waxes nostalgic for the days when scientists did more than just lick rocks—they cooked and, in some cases, actually ate the materials they studied, he noted in a 2017 essay written for the Paleontological Association’s newsletter. “We’ve lost the art of recognizing rocks by taste,” he laments.
For the creative rock-finding techniques described in the essay—part of a series that focuses on what he calls the “quirkier aspects of the rock and fossil world”—Zalasiewicz was one of several scientists honored during this year’s Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, which celebrates comical and eccentric achievements in scientific research.
Zalasiewicz’s reaction to the award? “Bemused,” he says: “It’s nice that the Ig Nobel Committee liked the story.”
The annual Ig Nobel ceremony—cheekily always dubbed the “first annual” despite now being in its 33rd year—draws attention to legitimate scientific pursuits that have some unexpected or humorous aspect. The judges award 10 prizes in a variety of categories, from the traditional Nobel Prize categories of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace to additional ones such as public health.
This year, the public health prize went to Stanford University urologist Seung-min Park for his invention of what he calls the Stanford toilet: a “smart” latrine that can monitor an individual’s health by analyzing their urine and feces. Just as people can dive deep into the food and nutrients that go into their bodies, the device allows curious folks to use the latest technologies to analyze their output with granularity: a dipstick test strip checks urine for signs of infections, diabetes, and other illnesses; a computer vision system calculates the speed and amount of urine released; and a sensor identifies each user based on the unique features of their anus. (The “analprint” augments a fingerprint provided before each use of the toilet.)
The literature prize was awarded to researchers who study a phenomenon known as jamais vu, in which an individual perceives something familiar as being unfamiliar—the opposite of déjà vu. Team member Akira O’Connor, a neuroscientist at the University of St. Andrews, explains that it’s possible to re-create this sensation in a laboratory by having subjects repeat a single word many, many, many, many, many times, until the word starts to sound unrecognizable.
O’Connor and his colleagues were initially wary of receiving an Ig Nobel for their work, which they knew ran the risk of making it appear “quirky and frivolous” and therefore easily dismissed, he explains. But O’Connor is nonetheless pleased, hoping the prize will invite more attention to the study of jamais vu and related phenomena.
All the scientists honored during this year’s ceremony—which features laureates of the non-Ig Nobels handing out the awards—have made contributions to their respective fields, even if that research began with Ig Nobel–worthy pursuits. For instance, the team of researchers who won this year’s Ig Nobel for medicine peered into the noses of human cadavers to determine whether there are an equal number of hairs in each nostril. “The information we needed was not available in anatomy texts, so we decided to find out on our own,” says team lead Natasha Mesinkovska, a dermatologist at the University of California, Irvine.
The hairy study could help guide treatment for patients with alopecia, a disease that causes hair loss. People with alopecia often lose their nasal hairs, Mesinkovska explains, leaving them vulnerable to allergies and infection. “Our intention to describe human nose hair growth patterns may seem unusual,” she says, “but it originated from a need to better understand the role they play as front-line guardians of the respiratory system.”
Other winning research included a study that explored reanimating dead spiders in order to use them as mechanical gripping tools. It’s a contribution to the burgeoning (and terrifying) field of “necrobotics,” which uses living (or, more accurately, formerly living) materials to build robots. Another team was honored for aiming to understand how the human brain learns to identify the different sounds that make up words—by investigating the mental activities of people who speak backward.
All winners received a fake $10 trillion Zimbabwean bill, and were emailed a six-page PDF diagram, which could be printed out and folded into a 3D trophy. Marc Abrahams, editor of the scientific humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research and founder of the awards, closed the virtual ceremony with his now-traditional line: “If you didn’t win an Ig Nobel Prize tonight—and especially if you did—better luck next year.”
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