Our 5 favourite Ig Nobel Prize Winners

Every year, the science humour magazine the Annals of Improbable Research awards the Ig Nobel Prizes – a riff on the prestigious Nobel Prizes, for weird and wacky research that “first makes people laugh, and then think”.

This year, the pickings are particularly hilarious. We’ve ranked our top five for your reading pleasure.

5. Why pedestrians don’t collide…and also why they do

We’re cheating a bit here, because two equally interesting studies about the physics of foot traffic were awarded prizes.

The physics prize went to a bit of research that explains why pedestrians aren’t constantly smacking into each other, using models to look at the interactions between people walking in crowds.

“While in motion, pedestrians adapt their walking paths trying to preserve mutual comfort distances and to avoid collisions,” the authors explain.

The study that took out the kinetics prize, on the other hand, looked into why pedestrians do actually sometimes collide with others. The team argues that anticipation is a big part of the reason – that pedestrians don’t just navigate based on where others are, but where they anticipate others soon will be.

They conducted an experiment where some pedestrians were asked to walk while using their phones, and others without, to see whether distraction interfered with their ability to anticipate and react to their neighbours’ motions.

“Both the distracted pedestrians and the non-distracted ones had difficulties avoiding collisions while navigating,” the team writes in Science Advances – though distraction did slow down walking speed.

“These results imply that avoidance manoeuvres are normally a cooperative process and that mutual anticipation between pedestrians facilitates efficient pattern formation.”

4. Forensic science with chewing gum

If you’ve ever stepped on or accidentally touched a piece of used chewing gum, you probably reacted with disgust – for good reason. Our mouths contain a lot of different types of bacteria, and you never know where someone else’s mouth has been.

But one study aimed to find out. The ecology prize was awarded to researchers who used genetic analysis to figure out which species of bacteria lived in wads of gum left stuck on the pavement in five different countries.

Chewing gum collection on a cement benc
Credit: Juan Camilo Bernal / Getty Images

Leila Satari and her colleagues at the University of Valencia in Spain collected 10 chewy samples from France, Greece, Spain, Turkey and Singapore, froze them, and ground them into powder for analysis.

They were particularly interested in how the bacteria changed over time. When gum is first stuck to the pavement, it largely boasts oral bacteria, but over time this is replaced by bacteria from the environment.

But the oral bacteria stuck around for a surprisingly long time, the team says in their paper in Scientific Reports. (How did they know this? Well, they chewed 13 gum samples, stuck them to outdoor pavement, and monitored them over 12 weeks, of course.)

“Our results have implications in fields such as criminology, contagious disease control, waste management and bioremediation,” they write.

3. Punch-preventing beards

A trio of beard-stroking US researchers came up with a pretty odd hypothesis: that humans evolved beards to protect our faces.

Cropped image of bearded man
Credit: Vince Wagner / EyeEm / Getty Images

“Because facial hair is one of the most sexually dimorphic features of humans and is often perceived as an indicator of masculinity and social dominance, human facial hair has been suggested to play a role in male contest competition,” the research team wrote in their paper, published in the journal Integrative Organismal Biology.

“We hypothesised that beards protect the skin and bones of the face when human males fight by absorbing and dispersing the energy of a blunt impact.”

To test this, they used a model of human bone tissue, covered it in various thicknesses of sheepskin, and dropped 20 samples of varying weights on it from varying heights.

And the result? Hairy skin absorbs more of the force of an impact – lending a little more credence to the theory that beards evolved to prevent injury, cuts or bruises.

Fittingly, this research project was awarded the Ig Nobel Peace Prize.

2. Upside-down rhinos

The Ig Nobels also have a transportation prize, which this year was awarded to an international team of scientists working out how best to move rhinos.

A black rhino being airlifted by the feet
Credit: Gallo Images / Contributor

Specifically, they wondered: would it be better to transport rhinos upside down?

This isn’t as random a question as you might think. To protect black rhinos from poaching in South Africa, they often need to be airlifted to another location as the terrain is too rough to drive over. Rhinos don’t usually come quietly, so they need to be tranquilised.

The researchers wanted to know if airlifting the rhinos in different orientations would exacerbate the effects of the tranquilisers – and after studying 12 rhinos using a crane, they found that upside-down rhinos fared better than those transported on their side.

“These experiments suggest that the pulmonary system of immobilised black rhinoceros is no more compromised by suspension by the feet for 10 minutes than it is by lying in lateral recumbency,” the research team conclude in their study in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases.

1. Orgasms clear the nose

The medicine prize was taken out by a German and UK team, whose study suggests that an orgasm can be an effective nasal decongestant.

How, you might ask, does one study that?

Lead author Cem Bulut, a professor at the SLK Clinics in Heilbronn in Germany, recruited some colleagues to investigate. Each of the 18 heterosexual couples used a device that could measure the airflow through their nose before sex, immediately post-climax, and 30 minutes after, one hour after, and five hours after.

The findings – published in the Ear, Nose & Throat Journal – confirmed what Bulut had suspected.

“Nasal breathing improved significantly after sexual intercourse with climax to the same degree as after application of nasal decongestant for up to 60 minutes,” the team write in their paper.

However, “nasal breathing was back to the baseline level after three hours following sexual intercourse, while it continued to be improved for longer after application of nasal decongestant”.

But the mechanism by which sex clears the nose is still unclear – so if anyone’s looking to win an Ig Nobel prize next year, there’s a free idea.

The full list of 2021 winners can be found here.

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