2013 Ig Nobel Prizes Celebrate Beer Goggles and Dung Beetles

By Wesley Fenlon

This year's Ig Nobel Prizes go to real scientists performing very silly science.

Harvard is a serious place, meant for serious students and serious education. But once a year, some of science's top minds arrive at Harvard and loosen the place up with the Ig Nobel Prizes, the not-quite-so-serious American cousins of the real Nobel Prizes. The Ig Nobels are awarded to "honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think." Like the achievements they celebrate, the prizes are only kinda-sorta a joke; they're given out by real Nobel winners.

This year's psychology prize exemplifies Ig Nobel's attempts to "celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative--and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology." The title of the winning study, published last year, is "Beauty is in the Eye of the Beer Holder: People Who Think They Are Drunk Also Think They Are Attractive." Sounds goofy, but there's some real science in here.

Photo credit: Flickr user leecullivan via Creative Commons

First, the scientists performed a study in a bar and discovered "the more alcoholic drinks customers consumed, the more attractive they thought they were." Okay, that's not surprising. But the second part of the study is. Quoting from the abstract:

"94 non-student participants in a bogus taste-test study were given either an alcoholic beverage (target BAL [blood alcohol level]= 0.10 g/100 ml) or a non-alcoholic beverage, with half of each group believing they had consumed alcohol and half believing they had not (balanced placebo design). After consuming beverages, they delivered a speech and rated how attractive, bright, original, and funny they thought they were. The speeches were videotaped and rated by 22 independent judges. Results showed that participants who thought they had consumed alcohol gave themselves more positive self-evaluations. However, ratings from independent judges showed that this boost in self-evaluation was unrelated to actual performance."

The participants who thought they were drinking alcohol actually just got a glass with a few dabs of liquor on the edge of the glass and a few drops on the surface, but they were told the drink contained several shots worth of liquor. Apparently the mere idea of being drunk is an effective social lubricant.

Winners of the other Ig Nobel prize categories were just as kooky.

The 2013 Medicine Prize went to a Japanese study for "assessing the effect of listening to opera, on heart transplant patients who are mice." Cheeky, but still, the study discovered that mice that listened to opera after heart transplants, and those that listened to Mozart, survived for 20 to 26 days. Mice exposed to Enya or monotone sounds rejected the new organs after 11 days. The music either caused the mice to generate regulatory cells, suppressing immune system response, or had lower stress levels as a result of the music.

The Chemistry Prize went to a study that found out the chemical process that causes onions to evoke tears is more complicated than previously thought. Another study won an Ig Nobel Joint Prize in Biology and Astronomy for discovering that dung beetles can navigate by the Milky Way. Their testing process was impressively thorough:

"First, they built a 10-foot-wide (3-meter-wide) circular arena in a South African game reserve and watched what troops of nocturnal dung beetles did on moonlit nights, moonless nights and cloudy nights. They fitted the bugs with little cardboard caps to block their view of the sky. They even fitted some of the bugs with transparent plastic caps, just to make sure that any differences they saw were due to the sky blockage rather than the presence of the caps.

Then the scientists took their dung-beetle arena into the Johannesburg Planetarium and ran the same experiment, to eliminate the possibility that the beetles were using terrestrial landmarks to plot their course in the dark. The planetarium was programmed to show the night sky with the Milky Way, or the Milky Way without the brightest stars in the sky, or the brightest stars without the Milky Way, or just the diffuse glow of the Milky Way with no stars at all.

The bottom line was clear: Those bugs could keep track of how the fuzzy streak of the Milky Way was oriented in the sky, to make sure they rolled their balls of dung in a suitably straight line."

Photo credit: Marcus Byrne/University of the Witwatersrand

The Archaeology Prize went to a team for "parboiling a dead shrew, and then swallowing the shrew without chewing, and then carefully examining everything excreted during subsequent days — all so they could see which bones would dissolve inside the human digestive system, and which bones would not." The Public Health Prize probably wins the year's weirdest description by being honored "for the medical techniques described in their report "Surgical Management of an Epidemic of Penile Amputations in Siam" — techniques which they recommend, except in cases where the amputated penis had been partially eaten by a duck."

While the Ig Nobels usually go to real, if silly, science, sometimes they really are just jokes with a little social commentary thrown in. This year's Ig Nobel Peace Prize went to "Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus, for making it illegal to applaud in public, AND to the Belarus State Police, for arresting a one-armed man for applauding." In 2012, they awarded the Literature Prize to "The US Government General Accountability Office, for issuing a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports."

Check out the rest of the Ig Nobel winners on their official website.