It’s a scientific rite of autumn: each year, scientists travel from around the world to an auditorium at Harvard University, where they are pelted with paper airplanes and scolded by an easily-bored girl.
It’s the Ig Nobel Prizes, the sold-out comedic awards ceremony that honors research that probably won't change the world but may make you chuckle. WARNING: At least one finding may cause nausea.
Thursday night, a month before the real Nobel prizes are announced, the winners began to receive their prizes from a panel of real Nobel laureates who are in on the joke. Here’s a taste of the silly research being recognized: the medicine prize went to a Japanese team that studied the molecular effects of opera music on mouse heart transplant recipients. A joint prize in biology and astronomy was awarded to an international team that found when dung beetles lose their bearings, they use the Milky Way to navigate. The physics prize went to European researchers who discovered that people can run on water—if they, and the water, were on the moon.
Organized by the “Annals of Improbable Research,” a science humor magazine, the ceremony skirts the difficult line between mockery and celebration. The research projects are nearly always conceived entirely seriously, and the simplest response would be to see the prizes as just a joke. But even when the methodology or the findings may seem inherently ridiculous, a little digging reveals a real, unanswered question at its root—and provide a glimpse of the curiosity, creativity, and sense of humor that can be essential scientific skills.
It turns out that important insights can arise from improbable experiments.
Take the winners of the psychology prize, a team that found that people who believe they are drunk also find themselves more attractive. It’s the kind of result anyone who has been the sober one at a party already knows. But the researchers were interested in untangling how alcohol affects people’s perceptions of themselves, and even how just anticipating alcohol might alter peoples’ perceptions—in ways that might make them more likely to sexually assault someone or behave in a dangerous way. They found that the effects of alcohol don't stem solely from its intoxicating effects, but even from the expectation of being drunk.
“In the real world, when people become intoxicated, they should know that although they think they’re more attractive, other people don’t share that view,” said Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University.
Scientists always emphasize that it is important not to be afraid to ask questions, and to remember that things that seem obvious in retrospect may have been unknown before someone set up the experiment. Of all the awards handed out Thursday, the archeology prize may illustrate that best.
Brian Crandall was just an undergraduate at Binghamton University two decades ago, interested in testing whether there was a way to discern whether the bones of small mammals left at archeological sites might have been eaten by people or by other mammals. Researchers had found ways to identify the signatures of digestive effects of various predators on bones. But no one knew what the human stomach did to a small rodent, such as a shrew, plentiful in the Northeast.
So Crandall and his adviser, Peter Stahl, devised an experiment in which a participant would parboil a shrew and swallow it pretty much whole, then provide their excrement for scientific study. They hoped to document what human digestion left behind.
“We obtained the poor little shrew with a common mousetrap,” Crandall recalled. “It was about four inches long, and we skinned it and eviscerated it, and then lightly boiled it for about two minutes, with a little bit of tomato sauce, as I recall. And then we had the volunteer swallow it whole.”
Crandall declined to name the adult male who ate the shrew, with the elliptical statement, “a little mystery about that is healthy.” What he and Stahl found, however, was that the human stomach is a barbaric environment for a shrew. One of the major bones was broken in half, apparently snapped from the action of the intestine. Despite “disgustingly thorough” examination of the study subject’s excrement, Crandall said, they never found many of the bones. The femurs, and even molars just dissolved in the volunteer’s stomach acid. The person who ate the shrew felt perfectly fine afterward, Crandall said.
The paper, published in the Journal of Archeological Science in 1995, ends with the somewhat disappointing conclusion that human digestion may be too destructive to leave a signature that can be distinguished by archeologists excavating a cache of tiny rodent bones from a site.
Crandall has since moved on to work as a science educator for elementary and middle school students, through an organization he created called Mad Science of the Mid-Hudson. But he said that despite the years’ gone by, his scientific result has had surprising staying power.
When his sister was getting a graduate degree, she was approached by fellow students trying to organize a union for graduate students. To persuade her of the necessity of a union, the organizers told her a cautionary tale about a laboratory where researchers were, apparently, swallowing shrews whole.
On Saturday, the Ig Informal Lectures will be open to the public, with winners giving a (slightly) longer description of their work.
The lectures are at 1:00 pm at MIT, Building 26, room 100, 77 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge.
Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.