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Ig Nobel Prize: Honoring the most ludicrous research studies of the year

It’s that time of the year again, when scientists gather to celebrate the unusual, quirky, and downright weird. This year’s 33rd Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, held virtually on September 14, did not disappoint.

Rock licking and geology

The Ig Nobel Prizes are renowned for honoring research that makes people both “LAUGH and THINK.” Leading the pack this year was the University of Leicester’s Jan Zalasiewicz. 

He secured both the Chemistry and Geology Prizes for his intriguing exploration of why scientists have a penchant for licking rocks. 

In his essay “Eating Fossils,” Zalasiewicz enlightens us that wetting a rock’s surface with a lick can highlight fossil and mineral textures. A simple yet ingenious way to bypass the confusing maze of intersecting micro-reflections and micro-refractions on a dry rock surface.

Smart toilets and public health

On the innovative end of the spectrum, Stanford University urologist Seung-min Park received the public health prize for inventing the “Stanford toilet.” 

This isn’t just any toilet, but a smart one. It assesses a user’s health by scrutinizing their waste. 

From checking for infections and diabetes using a dipstick test strip to employing a computer vision system that quantifies urine, it does it all. And the cherry on top? It recognizes users by their unique “analprint.”

The mystery of “jamais vu”

The literary award went to a team exploring the puzzling phenomenon of jamais vu. Opposite to déjà vu, this is when familiar things suddenly seem strange. 

Akira O’Connor from the University of St. Andrews explained that it’s possible to induce 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 hesitant about the Ig Nobel recognition. O’Connor said this was due to the risk their research appearing “quirky and frivolous,” and therefore easily dismissed. Now, he hopes the award will bring more attention to their study.

Nostril hair earns an Ig Nobel

Other notable mentions include a team from the University of California, Irvine, who ventured into the unknown territory of counting human nostril hairs. 

The goal was 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,” said team lead Natasha Mesinkovska.

The findings have significant implications for alopecia patients, who often lose nasal hair, which defends against allergens and infections.

Zombie spiders

Furthermore, in the eerily fascinating realm of “necrobotics,” a team was awarded for their attempts to reanimate dead spiders as mechanical tools. 

The researchers converted the corpses of wolf spiders into mechanical grippers that can manipulate objects.

Faye Yap, a mechanical engineer at Rice University in Houston, said the study was born out of a simple question: Why do spiders curl up when they die? Yap said that the next big step is to individually control the spider’s legs.

In the end, the Ig Nobel Prizes remind us that sometimes, the simplest and quirkiest questions lead to the most profound discoveries.

As is tradition, all winners received a humorous fake $10 trillion Zimbabwean bill and a 3D trophy diagram. 

Marc Abrahams, the founder of the awards, concluded, “If you didn’t win an Ig Nobel Prize tonight – and especially if you did – better luck next year.”

More about the Ig Nobel Prize

In the world of scientific recognition, one award ceremony stands out not for lauding groundbreaking discoveries, but for celebrating the most eccentric and unusual scientific endeavors. Enter the Ig Nobel Prize awards, a unique and often humorous event that honors achievements that make people laugh and then think.

Origins and purpose

As mentioned above, Marc Abrahams, the co-founder and mastermind behind the awards, started the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony in 1991. Unlike its more prestigious counterpart, the Nobel Prize, the Ig Nobel’s purpose is not to celebrate the most revolutionary contributions to humanity, but instead to highlight research that at first glance seems bizarre, amusing, or even outright ridiculous.

However, upon closer inspection, these research topics often encourage a deeper level of contemplation, questioning, and sometimes even awe.

The award ceremony

Every year, at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre, a lively and entertaining ceremony unfolds. Genuine Nobel laureates often present the awards to the Ig Nobel winners, emphasizing the intersection of genuine respect and playful mockery that the event embodies. The ceremony includes a variety of comic sketches, operatic performances, and other light-hearted segments, all centered around science.

Each award recipient gets 60 seconds to explain their research. If they exceed this time, a young girl, affectionately known as “Miss Sweetie Poo,” repeatedly cries out, “Please stop, I’m bored,” ensuring that speeches remain concise and to the point.

Notable winners and research topics

Over the years, the Ig Nobel Prize has recognized a wide array of curious research. Some notable examples include:

Physics (2000): Awarded to David Schmidt for answering the question of why shower curtains billow inwards.

Peace (2006): Granted to Howard Stapleton for inventing an electromechanical teenager repellant – a device that makes an annoying sound only audible to teenagers.

Biology (2016): Awarded to Charles Foster for living in the wild as several different animals, including a badger, an otter, and a deer.

Reception and impact

The Ig Nobel awards often walk a fine line between mockery and admiration. While critics argue that the awards may trivialize science, many in the scientific community see the value in humor and believe that the awards highlight the creativity and curiosity inherent in scientific endeavors.

These awards underscore the fact that science isn’t always about grand revelations or world-changing technologies. Sometimes, it’s about asking odd questions and following one’s curiosity, no matter how quirky it may seem.

In summary, the Ig Nobel Prize awards serve as a reminder that science is as much about exploration and curiosity as it is about serious research. They emphasize the joy of discovery, the humor inherent in the scientific process, and the idea that every question, no matter how seemingly absurd, has its place in the vast landscape of human knowledge.

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