Fri. Mar 31st, 2023
To understand goats, you have to walk like them.  Or something.
Enlarge / To understand goats, you have to walk like them. Or something.

I am the Ars correspondent responsible for coverage of the Nobel Prize. And each fall, the fact that they are coming often eludes me to a very specific moment: the announcement of the Ig Nobel Prizes, organized by the Annals of Improbable Research. Every year, honorees are named for doing scientific work that, at first glance, does not seem to have a healthy motivation. But sometimes (not always) a more careful look at their work reveals a serious scientific problem, albeit perhaps in a baroque or circuitous way.

This year’s awards, which were presented in a ceremony that traditionally includes everything from a mini-opera to a Nobel laureate acting as the official sweeper of paper airplanes, were no exception. I’m in favor of the science behind figuring out rocks brand personality, as it adds rigor to a field it apparently lacked.

But I’m getting ahead of things. Here are, in no particular order, the honorees.

Medicine: This one is a bit weird. A group from the University of Lübeck found that if you put someone with an itch in front of a mirror and have them scratch the wrong side of their body, the itch still goes away. The brain is a strange place.

Economy: An international team took these home to measure the brand personality of stones. This is actually serious science; apparently, brands can have personality traits that, like the five major human personality traits, can be quantified. Mark Avis, Sarah Forbes and Shelagh Ferguson found that the methods used to identify a brand’s ‘personality’ also work on rocks: “the rock stimuli have a distinct BP, and … the personality is developed from sometimes surprisingly detailed personifications.” Which of course raises the question of whether brand personality measures anything meaningful.

Chemistry: While this arguably could have taken home the prize for economy, Volkswagen’s magical engine performance got the “win” in chemistry. No one from the company was present to receive the award.

Peace: I’m not sure why this one ended up as Peace, but it certainly has the honor of being the only article on the list I’d read before the awards announcements, “On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit.” What exactly is pseudo-profound bullshit? Brilliant, the authors illustrate it with a tweet from Deepak Chopra, highlighting how randomizing the words doesn’t make it any more meaningful. “It may have been constructed to give the reader a sense of depth at the expense of a clear statement of meaning or truth,” the authors conclude. Four of the five authors attended the awards.

Reproduction: This is the first time I see a posthumous Ig Nobel go to Ahmed Shafik. For reasons probably obvious to Shafik, he dressed male rats in pants made of different fabrics, including polyester and wool, and then monitored how often they mated. “The electrostatic potentials generated on the penis and scrotum were also measured,” his summary said. The conclusion: natural fibers are better for horny rats. He followed that up by placing human testicles in a polyester sling, again checking “electrostatic potentials generated by friction between the polyester suspensor and the skin of the scrotum.” Apparently, the sling provided an effective contraceptive, possibly by raising the temperature of the testicles (measured, of course, by the “rectal-testicular temperature difference”).

Biology: This one goes to a few books, so I’ll quote the quote:

Jointly awarded to: Charles Foster, For living in the wild as, at various times, a badger, an otter, a deer, a fox and a bird; and to Thomas Thwaites, for creating prosthetic extensions of his limbs that enabled him to move in the manner of, and spend time roaming hills in the company of, goats.

The museum in Rotterdam that now houses the goat suit generously allowed it to appear at the award ceremony.

Physics: That is physics with a good dose of biology, recognizing two different teams of researchers. Both studies involved the perception of polarized light. In one, a bunch of Hungarians found out that the local dragonflies couldn’t tell the difference between a polished black tombstone and a small amount of water, so they often gathered in a cemetery. The other team showed that white horses have an advantage, despite being easier for predators to spot And suffer from higher cancer rates due to their inability to reflect UV light. It turns out that a parasite fly reels in prey using polarized light reflected from white coats, and it just can’t see white horses that easily.

Psychology: For a variety of things, humanity exhibits what is known as an inverted U-shaped curve. We are terrible at them as children, quickly rising to proficiency and staying there well into adulthood, then regressing with age. This applies to everything from our analytical skills to our athletic skills. The psychology prize recognizes a team of researchers who have added something else to the list: lying. Additional credit to the authors for using science museum visitors to conduct the tests.

Literature: Kudos to author Fredrik Sjöberg for his willingness to attend the ceremony in person to see his autobiography honored. According to the award, the first part of his trilogy “describes the joys of collecting flies that are dead and flies that are not yet dead”.

Perception: This study asked a simple question: Do things appear the same size when you bend over and look at them between your legs? The answer is no, as determined by a carefully controlled study in which some subjects wore glasses that reversed their vision to make it look like they were bent over. Their conclusion is that body orientation influences visual perception. Why they chose to ask this in the first place…

By akfire1

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