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Ig Nobel award winners include dung beetle and beer goggle researchers

The Ig Nobel awards show was held at Harvard Thursday night to award this year’s scientific projects that 'make people laugh, then make them think.'

By Contributor / September 13, 2013

A South African and Swedish team celebrates winning the Biology/Astronomy Prize during the annual Ig Nobel prize ceremony at Harvard University on Thursday. They won for discovering that when dung beetles get lost they can navigate their way home by looking at the Milky Way.

Winslow Townson/AP

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People think they are more attractive when they think they are intoxicated. 

Lost dung beetles use the Milky Way to find their way home.

Is any of this information useful to you? If not – well, reconsider.

The Improbable Research Nobel Prize Award ceremony was held at Harvard Thursday night to award this year’s scientific projects that “make people laugh, then make them think,” as the organizers, the Annals of Improbable Research, put it.

The awards, held every year since 1991, are meant to “raise the question: How do you decide what's important and what's not, and what's real and what's not — in science and everywhere else?,” write the organizers. And, each year, the awards do just that, lofting projects unlikely to win a real Nobel Prize into the scientific limelight in a zany show that asks the question, why is this science so uproarious?

This year’s Psychology prize went to the authors of "'Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beer Holder': People Who Think They Are Drunk Also Think They Are Attractive." In that paper, the winning team noted in an experiment that French men who believe they are drunk also believe that they are more attractive. That suggested two things: one, that the “beer goggles” effect applies not just to the sudden object of an intoxicated person’s desire, but to their self-perception, as well. Two, that you don’t even have to be intoxicated to experience this effect; you just have to think you are. 

Of course, "the perceived attractiveness lies in the eyes of the ‘beer holder’ and is not shared by anyone else," write the authors in the paper, published in the British Journal of Psychology. 

In biology and astronomy, the award went to an international team that told us that lost African dung beetles look to the Milky Way to navigate their way home. The poetic experiment involved fitting the beetles, which roll other animal’s dung into little balls, with snug, bantam caps that obscured their vision of the stars. Without the guiding swath of light high above, the beetles got lost, confirming that the lowest of the low beetles were, in fact, celestially inclined. The beetles might be in the gutter – or, worse perhaps, in the dung – but they sure are looking at the stars.

The medicine prize was awarded to a Japanese team that assessed the effect of listening to opera on how mice heart transplant patients fared (the mice fared well). Naturally, the award show included an opera performance.

And the awards show, as usual, was hurried along as an 8-year-old girl on stage goaded the winners into quickly summarizing why their papers were important and sighing them off the stage in boredom. Real Nobel laureates were also on hand to bestow the prizes on the winners.

"I feel honored to receive the award," says Brad Bushman, a professor at The Ohio State University an an author on the "Beer Holder" paper.

"Real Nobel Laureates handed them out," he says.

For the first time, the winners received not just fame and glory, but cash prizes: $10 trillion Zimbabwe dollars, or about four US dollars. For the audience, there was a contest to take home a possibly even grander prize: a date with a Nobel laureate (a real one).

Representatives from all the winning teams were there to collect the prizes, except for one Thai team, whose research included a note about the risks that ducks pose to human extremities. That team sent an acceptance speech in lieu of their presence. Nobel laureate Eric Maskin read it.

Other winners include the inventors of a “electro-mechanical system to trap airplane hijackers" and the discovers of the useful information that “people would be physically capable of running across the surface of a pond — if those people and that pond were on the moon.”

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