"And the chemistry prize goes to ... Volkswagen!" The announcement, made last night in a packed hall at Harvard University, was unlikely to please the car company, however. That’s because it was awarded "for solving the problem of excessive automobile pollution emissions by automatically, electromechanically producing fewer emissions whenever the cars are being tested," explained Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research.
This isn't your typical scientific gig. In a room packed with Nobel laureates, opera singers, and whizzing paper airplanes, this could only be one event: The Ig Nobel prize ceremony. This marks the 26th year of the contest that celebrates scientific studies that "make you laugh, and then think."
Just like the $10 trillion prize accepted on stage by the winning scientists—it is a Zimbabwean banknote with little value due to hyperinflation—many of this year's studies focused on perception and deception.
Take for example the Ig Nobel prize–winning study of itches by a team of neurologists and psychologists at the University of Luebeck in Germany, published in PLOS ONE in 2013. The researchers injected a chemical under the skin of people's arms to cause a mild itch. The volunteers were then asked to scratch one of their arms while looking at themselves in a mirror. The catch was that the mirror and a real-time video camera controlled which arm appeared to be scratched. Sometimes the participants scratched the truly itchy arm but it looked like their non-itchy arm was being scratched, and vice versa. And surprisingly, the subjects reported significant itch relief even when they scratched the wrong arm—as long as it looked like the itchy arm was getting scratched.
Misperception in the nonhuman world also got the Ig Nobel nod. Two studies of confused animals led by Gábor Horváth, a biophysicist at Eötvös University in Budapest, garnered a joint prize. The first was a study of dragonflies published in 2007 in Freshwater Biology. The mystery was why dragonflies were spending so much time on polished black gravestones in Hungarian cemeteries where the insects' prey were nowhere to be found. The females were even depositing their eggs on the stone surface where they had no chance of surviving. The answer? Polarized light. The insects detect their watery homes by looking for the polarized light that shimmers on its surface. It turns out that the black gravestones reflect similar polarized light, turning them into a literal graveyard for dragonflies.
Then Horváth turned to the mystery of horseflies. Why do they prefer to bite dark horses over white ones? In a study published in 2010 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, he discovered the answer: Polarized light strikes again. Horses with pure white fur are much prized by breeders and suffer a range of maladies—including sunburn—but they have a built-in advantage. White horse fur does not reflect the characteristic polarized light that the blood-sucking insects use to find their lunch.
But perhaps the ultimate exploration of animal confusion goes to Charles Foster and Thomas Thwaites. Foster is an ethicist and veterinarian based in Oxford, U.K., Thwaites is a technologist based in London, and both of them have spent significant amounts of time pretending to not be humans. Foster, who wanted to better understand the nonhuman "worldview," lived for days at a time as a badger, sleeping all day and roaming the forest all night on his hands and knees hunting for earthworms to eat. The animal of choice for Thwaites was an elephant, but he deemed it too dangerous and difficult of a transformation, so he settled on being a goat. This required the design of prosthetic limbs and intense physical training (see video, above). He spent days with goats in the Swiss Alps, chewing grass and generally trying to fit in with the herd. What did he learn from his immersive exploration of the goat world? It's crucial to have friends in the intensely hierarchical world of the herd, and Thwaites says he was lucky to have a goat "buddy". All their hard work paid off last night as they accepted their $10 trillion prizes.
The rest of the 2016 Ig Nobel prizes:
The late Ahmed Shafik, for studying the effects of wearing polyester, cotton, or wool trousers on the sex life of rats, and for then conducting similar tests with human males.
Mark Avis, Sarah Forbes, and Shelagh Ferguson, for assessing the perceived personalities of rocks, from a sales and marketing perspective.
Evelyne Debey, Maarten De Schryver, Gordon Logan, Kristina Suchotzki, and Bruno Verschuere, for asking a thousand liars how often they lie, and for deciding whether to believe those answers.
Gordon Pennycook, James Allan Cheyne, Nathaniel Barr, Derek Koehler, and Jonathan Fugelsang for their scholarly study called "On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit".
Fredrik Sjöberg, for his three-volume autobiographical work about the pleasures of collecting flies that are dead, and flies that are not yet dead.
Atsuki Higashiyama and Kohei Adachi, for investigating whether things look different when you bend over and view them between your legs.