The Ig Nobels are a favourite part of the year in the Cosmos office. Each ceremony scientists are surprised that their reputable and important science has won the ‘other’, less noble, Nobel prize – the one that makes people laugh and then think.
This year the winners include research on a toilet that monitors poo; a scientist who licks rocks and counting hairs in cadavers’ nostrils.
“Candidly, winning an Ig Nobel wasn’t something I had anticipated,” Dr Seung-min Park, a researcher of urology at Stanford University told Cosmos.
He was part of the team who won the Public Health Prize.
“From the outset, I’ve been driven by a two-fold aspiration: to invoke laughter with the quirky unexpectedness of a concept and then stimulate deeper reflections about its underlying significance.”
Of course, this is the importance of the prizes – all the research is good science, it’s just also science that is surprising or fun.
Public Health Prize: The Stanford Toilet
Park’s Ig Nobel winning research was released in 2020 and it’s about a device called the Stanford toilet – that’s a toilet which can detect signs illness from human excrement. The toilet uses a number of sensors, including a camera inside the bowl.
“Interestingly, our primary sensor was an optical scanner, more colloquially known as a camera, as it’s one of the most developed sensors we have today,” Park told Cosmos.
“A unique feature we incorporated was the ability to identify users. We utilized a fingerprint scanner integrated into the toilet flush lever, and, more innovatively, an analprint scanner.”
While, funny, the toilet is not just staying in the lab.
“I founded a start-up in collaboration with a renowned bidet manufacturing company in Korea,” he said.
“We anticipate that our innovative product will make its market debut within the coming year.”
Mechanical Engineering Prize: Zombie spider grip
Another team won the Ig Nobel for mechanical engineering for ‘re-animating dead spiders to use as mechanical gripping tools’.
The research was published in 2022, and it took the idea of inspiration from the natural world to a whole other level – spiders legs moving motion became grippers, but only once they’re dead.
“The necrobotic gripper is capable of grasping objects with irregular geometries and up to 130% of its own mass,” the researchers wrote in their paper.
“Furthermore, the gripper can serve as a handheld device and innately camouflages in outdoor environments.”
Chemistry and Geology Prize: Geologists licking rocks
In a regular column in the Paleontological Association Newsletter, scientist Jan Zalasiewicz writes “entertainment for tired and harassed palaeontologist colleagues”. For one column, he wrote about something that seems to surprise everyone who is not a geologist: scientists regularly lick rocks.
“Different rock types can be very hard to tell apart, especially when one is out there in the hills with only a hammer and a hand lens to help you,” he told Cosmos.
“So one thing I (and many of my field geologist colleagues) have often done is having hammered a chip of rock off some crag, to lick it before examining it using the lens. It becomes pretty much a reflex, and we don’t think about it much.”
According to Zalasiewicz, the wet surface of the rock shows the shape and colour of the grains of the rock more quickly – similar to a rough piece of wood compared to a varnished one.
Even more interesting – a famous geologist from the 1750s also used this technique but in a different way.
“The surprise I had in reading the paper by Giovanni Arduino – a classic paper written in 1759, which laid the basis for the Geological Time Scale we use today, but only recently translated into English – was how much he used taste to identify different kinds of rock and mineral (sometimes burning them first to widen the effect for the palette), and with what rich detail he described the different taste effects he experienced,” he told Cosmos.
“It makes sense, of course. In the very early days of geology, before the use of microscopes and other technology, one had to be inventive when prospecting for such things as useful ore minerals.”
“It’s a skill we’ve now almost completely lost.”
Medicine Prize: Cadavers’ nose hairs
Finally, research from an international team of researchers looked at a particularly gruesome topic – the growth of nose hairs in a cadaver – to check they were the same.
Twenty cadavers from a medical school in Southern California would have had a tickly experience in 2020 when researchers used a measuring tape to check the length as well as individually count the number of hairs in each.
“Our intention to describe human nose hair growth patterns may seem unusual, but it originated from a need to better understand the role they play as front line guardians of the respiratory system,” Dr Christine Pham – one of the researchers on the paper – told Cosmos.
“The knowledge is directly applicable to our patients with alopecia areata, who may experience loss of nasal hairs, and are potentially at increased risk for exposure to allergic and infectious particles. The information we needed was not available in anatomy textbooks, so we decided to find out on our own.”
If you’re interested, they found that the average number of nose hairs was 120 in the left and 122 in the right.
You can watch the whole – incredible – prize ceremony below.