Thursday, September 18, 2014

Ig Nobels: British researchers take coveted science humour prize

Japanese scientists discover that it easier to slip on a banana peel than on apple skins

German and Czech scientists research proves that dogs align to the north-south axis of 
Earth's magnetic field to urinate and defecate.

Italian government won the economics prize for increasing its economy by factoring in revenues from prostitution, smuggling and the sale of illegal drugs.

The nation can hold its head up high. Once again, researchers in Britain have been honoured with that most coveted of scientific awards, the Ig Nobel prize.
Not to be confused with the more prestigious – and lucrative – prizes doled out from Stockholm next month, the Ig Nobels are awarded for science that makes people laugh and then makes them think. The winners this year received their awards at a ceremony at Harvard University, where a stern eight-year-old girl was on hand to enforce the strict 60 second limit on acceptance speeches. The ceremony is organised by the science humour magazine, Annals of Improbable Research.
Speaking at the event was Rob Rhinehart, creator of the all-in-one food, Soylent, and Dr Yoshiro Nakamatsu, a prolific inventor with more than 3,000 patents who won an Ig Nobel in 2005 for photographing every meal he ate in the previous 34 years.
Holding the flag for Britain, though only figuratively because the flight to Boston cost too much, was Amy Jones, who shared the Ig Nobel prize forpsychology. Her work with Minna Lyons at Liverpool Hope University revealed that people who habitually stayed up late were, on average, more self-admiring, manipulative and psychopathic. 
"To be honest, I hadn't heard of the awards before," Jones told the Guardian. "It's absolutely overwhelming. No one could be more surprised than me." People who display the traits often do very well in life, having desirable jobs and more sexual partners, she said. "Successful psychopaths are going to end up in all the high end jobs, in charge of companies, making millions. The unsuccessful psychopaths are the ones that end up in jail."
Her work appeared last year in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
The Ig Nobel prize for biology went to researchers in Germany and the Czech Republic for carefully amassing evidence, over scores of walks, that dogs align to the north-south axis of Earth's magnetic field to urinate and defecate. The scientists, led by Hynek Burda at the Czech University of Life Science in Prague, are unsure if dogs align on purpose, or indeed why they do it at all. Writing up their discovery in Frontiers in Zoology, the scientists end on a worrisome point: "It forces biologists and physicians to seriously reconsider effects magnetic storms might pose on organisms."
Researchers in China and Canada put many minds at rest when they demonstrated through brain scans that it was perfectly normal to see the face of Jesus in toast. Lead scientist Kang Lee at the University of Toronto said that it was common for people to be fooled into seeing significant figures because the brain was wired to recognise faces. The breakthrough earned the scientists the Ig Nobel prize for neuroscience.
More valuable insights came from scientists in Japan who noted the status of the banana skin as an object upon which to slip and duly investigated its frictional properties. Sixty measurements later, they concluded that banana skins were more slippery than both apple peel and tangerine skin, and that the banana's polysaccharide follicular gel was probably to blame. Their effort was rewarded with the Ig Nobel prize for physics.
For some scientists, data must be earned the hard way. Eigel Reimers and Sindre Eftestøl at the University of Oslo were doing field work in Edgeøya, Svalbard, when they noticed reindeer being stalked by polar bears. To find out how scared the reindeer were, the scientists took notes as a person approached the animals while dressed in dark hiking gear, and later on, when disguised as a polar bear. The reindeer bolted at more than twice the distance when they saw the man in a polar bear suit. The work won Reimers and Eftestøl the Ig Nobel prize for Arctic science.
Five bona fide Nobel laureates handed out the Ig Nobels at the Harvard ceremony. The prize for nutrition went to Spanish researchers for exploring the value of bacteria taken from children's faeces in sausage making. Doctors in the US and India won the medicine prize for demonstrating how to stop an uncontrollable nosebleed with nasal tampons made from bacon.
More US and India researchers, with help from the Czech Republic, won the public health prize for a raft of studies into the mental hazards of cat ownership.
The Ig Nobel for art honoured Italian researchers who found that people felt less pain from a laser when they stared at a beautiful painting instead of an ugly one. The entire Italian government won the economics prize for being the first European nation to increase its economy by factoring in revenues from prostitution, smuggling and the sale of illegal drugs.