"The Stinker," the Ig Nobel Prizes' official mascot, contemplates the strange science that the award ceremony honors. Credit: Annals of Improbable Research

Funny Discoveries In Science – The Ig Nobel Awards

The Sanders Theater at Harvard is a host of annual Ig Nobel Prize awards, organized by Annals of Improbable Research. The award is given for scientific research that first makes people laugh, then think.
Mixing laughs and science seems a bit odd, but it’s only natural. Scientists are big kids – it takes childlike curiosity and thinking out of the box to reason with the world we live in. Unconventional thinking and quirky questions pave the road to big breakthroughs. For example, in 2000 Andre Geim won the Ig Nobel prize for levitating a frog in a magnetic field and 10 years later he and his colleague earned the Nobel Prize in Physics for applying that research with graphene.
One funny example is the last year’s winner, a scientist who studied whether a cat could be considered both solid and a liquid.

If I fits, I sits

Point of this event is to bring some laughs and to inspire people to ask questions, even if they are ridiculous. Most those questions probably have interesting answers, and some can lead to lifechanging discoveries.

This year’s winners by category:


“Human saliva as cleaning agent for dirty surfaces”
Paula M. S.
, Adília M.
 & César A. N.
, Studies in Conservation, vol. 35, 1990,
pp. 153-155

Conservators use spit for cleaning old statues and paintings for quite some time, as it removes the impurities without affecting the artifact. Scientists wanted to test if this was true and got into the chemistry of saliva. They found out that amylase (an enzyme present in the saliva used for breaking down starches) is the main constituent responsible for cleaning power of saliva. So the practice does make sense and we can probably expect some amylase cleaning agents in the future.


Validation of a Functional Pyelocalyceal Renal
Model for the Evaluation of Renal Calculi Passage While Riding a Roller Coaster
,” – Marc Mitchell & David Wartinger,
The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, vol. 116, October
2016, pp. 647-652

There were some noted cases of spontaneous kidney stone passage on bungee and roller coasters, which inspired two scientists to see how these are correlated. They took an accurate model of a kidney modeled on their patient, inserted three stones that the said patient has passed and suspended them in urine. This kidney was then taken to a 2 minute 30 seconds long roller coaster ride, to test if the movement will evict the stones. And it did. Turns out that regular roller coaster riding can prevent forming of the stones by dislodging microscopic ones before they build up, and help patients who already have a problem. It is important to note that this procedure won’t benefit people with large kidney stones (you can imagine why).


The Scent of the Fly,” – Paul
Becher, Sebastien Lebreton, Erika Wallin, Erik Hedenstrom, Felipe
Borrero-Echeverry, Marie Bengtsson, Volker Jorger, and Peter Witzgall

Entomologists found out that female fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) produce a specific pheromone that can differentiate them from males just by smell. This pheromone is used for communication between individuals of the same species and mate-finding. Fruit flies like, well, fruit and fruity stuff, so you can find traces of their pheromones in wine, slightly changing its taste. Entomologists asked if enologists and other experts can differentiate the two. An experiment was arranged, 8 experts taking sniffing glasses of wine that previously contained a single fly of one sex or the other. The experts easily recognized the glasses where the female was present.


Spontaneous Cross-Species Imitation in Interaction
Between Chimpanzees and Zoo Visitors
,” – Tomas Persson, Gabriela-Alina Sauciuc, and
Elainie Madsen, Primates, vol. 59, no. 1,
January 2018, pp 19–29

People like imitating chimps when they come to see them at the zoo, but the funny thing is, chimps do the same and equally good. A group of cognitive scientists went to their local zoo to see how often did humans imitate the chimpanzees and vice versa. After 52 hours of observation, they concluded that both species of apes imitate each other as often and as accurately as the other. This indicates that apes can use mimic in social context, not just for learning basic abilities, which makes their brain more similar to ours than we suspected.


Colonoscopy in the Sitting Position: Lessons
Learned From Self-Colonoscopy by Using a Small-Caliber, Variable-Stiffness
,” – Akira

Japanese are very shy when their private parts are involved. So shy that many evade getting colonoscopies. Giving that this medical procedure is highly effective at preventing colon cancer, Akira wanted to find a way that it can be done in privacy of your home. He used endoscopes with smaller diameter than usual ones and managed in 4 attempts to successfully give himself a colonoscopy in less than 5 minutes. With some training anyone can learn to use the device and check themselves in a dignified way, without waiting for an appointment. This research can save thousands of lives and get us few steps ahead in preventing and treating cancer.


Assessing the Calorific Significance of Episodes
of Human Cannibalism in the Paleolithic
,” – James

If you ever wondered does human flesh have the best nutritional value out of all other meats, James Cole answered that question. Wanting to know why some Paleolithic humans practiced cannibal diet, he measured the nutritional value of every part of the human body. Data was acquired from male adults. Results of his research concluded that while we have similar nutrient profile like other mammals our size, our flesh contains fewer calories than of larger mammals Paleolithic people usually hunted or bred for food. Based on the results, Cole proposed that human flesh didn’t have a role in diet, but rather in ritual practices.


Life Is Too Short to RTFM: How Users Relate to
Documentation and Excess Features in Consumer Products
,” Alethea L.
Blackler, Rafael Gomez, Vesna Popovic and M. Helen Thompson, Interacting With Computers, vol. 28, no. 1,
2014, pp. 27-46

When you get some new piece of equipment chances
are that you won’t read the manual, ‘cause ain’t nobody got time for that. People
who write the manuals wanted to know why people are so lazy when it comes to
reading them, researched it and wrote an extensive explanation why. To put it
in highlights:

  • People claim that they use manuals and all
    features of domestic and personal products just 25% of the time.
  • Younger people, women and more
    educated people are less likely to read the manual than older people, men and
    less educated individuals.
  • Excess features are associated
    with negative feelings, while core features with positive.
  • Reading of manuals causes
    annoyance and negative emotional experiences.

It seems that people like when products are designed is such a way, that their use is obvious and easy, requiring just a bit of curiosity and poking around. Designers of manuals are now looking for new, better ways to inform the customers about all the features, instructions and risks of their product, something less excruciating and more interesting to interact with.


Righting a Wrong: Retaliation on a
Voodoo Doll Symbolizing an Abusive Supervisor Restores Justice
,” Lindie Hanyu Liang, Douglas J.
Brown, Huiwen Lian, Samuel Hanig, D. Lance Ferris, and Lisa M. Keeping, The Leadership Quarterly, February 2018

Team of scientists gathered employees with abusive supervisors and gave them doll version of their boss. The scientists asked the employees to imagine their supervisor in that doll and gave some tools to harm it. It seems that poking a doll version of your asshole boss Voodoo magic style can actually give you a sense of justice. This doesn’t mean that we should give all employees dolls of their supervisors to poke and let supervisors be abusive, but rather indicates how we can relieve stress in non-harmful and non-aggressive manner.


Shouting and Cursing While Driving:
Frequency, Reasons, Perceived Risk and Punishment
,” Francisco Alonso, Cristina Esteban, Andrea Serge and
Maria-Luisa Ballestar, Journal of Sociology and Anthropology, vol. 1, no. 12017, pp. 1-7

There is a peculiar thing about driving, especially in urban areas – it brings the worst out of people. Traffic accidents are a major cause of death and injury, and drivers who tend to be more aggressive have higher rates of accidents. What is baffling is how this behavior became normal and tolerated. Scientists from Spain measured motives, frequency and effects of cursing while driving. Motives mostly revolve around reacting on dangerous maneuvers, rule-breaking, other driver putting the person in danger and stress. Some participants of the study even said that they shout and curse because “everybody does it”, indicating that these behaviors partly stem from social acceptance. The era of self-driving cars can maybe solve this issue, but in the meantime we should focus on road safety education and campaigns, raising awareness about the effect of aggression and misbehavior in traffic.


Nocturnal Penile Tumescence Monitoring
With Stamps
,” John M.
Barry, Bruce Blank, Michael Boileau, Urology, vol. 15, 1980,
pp. 171-172

Erectile dysfunction in men can occur from either psysiological (e.g. organic form of impotence – not being able to get an erection awake or asleep) or psychological issues (psychogenic impotence). Standard test for organic impotence includes mercury-filled strain gauge, a night in the hospital and an expensive bill. The scientists have managed to make a less invasive and cheaper method with special stamps. These stamps easily break apart when enough stress is applied – when the subject gets an erection the ring snaps. This method is as accurate as the other standard tests and a lot cheaper (30 cents, compared to 500$ in hospital – in 1980 when the research was done) making it a useful and widely available screening test for detecting organic impotence.