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Ig Nobels honor research on cursing, bat sex, socks

Awards given out this year for studies on sex lives of fruit bats, whale snot, treating asthma with roller coaster rides, and swearing that's good for you.

The public health prize went to U.S. government research from 1967 that found that microbes cling to bearded scientists. The experiment involved baby chicks and mannequins sporting natural hair beards.
The Ig Nobel public health prize went to U.S. government research from 1967 that found that microbes cling to bearded scientists. The experiment involved baby chicks and mannequins sporting natural hair beards. Industrial Health and Safety Office

The next time you get injured, go ahead and swear.

Researchers who found that cursing actually relieves pain were among the winners of Ig Nobel prizes today. Also honored were projects on whale snot and certain things fruit bats do while copulating.

Sponsored by the science humor magazine "Annals of Improbable Research," the annual awards were presented tonight in a ceremony at Harvard University to projects that "cannot and should not be reproduced."

The Ig Nobel peace prize was awarded to research from Keele University in the U.K. that confirmed that swearing can lessen pain.

"Swearing increased pain tolerance, increased heart rate, and decreased perceived pain compared with not swearing," the abstract says. "However, swearing did not increase pain tolerance in males with a tendency to catastrophise."

An award that is sure to raise eyebrows is the biology prize that went to researchers at the University of Bristol in the U.K., who found that fellatio in fruit bats prolongs intercourse. There's even a YouTube video that is more eerie than erotic.

In research that could boost the sales of socks in New England, a study out of the University of Otago in New Zealand found that wearing socks over shoes results in far fewer slips and falls on icy footpaths. It won the physics prize.

The public health prize went to research (PDF) dating back to 1967 that could explain why beards might be discouraged in medical labs. Researchers with the Industrial Health and Safety Office at Fort Detrick, Md., concluded that microbes cling to beards. In the experiments, baby chicks and guinea pigs nuzzled with virus-contaminated natural hair beards on mannequins.

Other researchers are concerned with protecting whale populations by looking for novel ways to check for microorganisms in the ocean-dwelling mammals. The engineering prize went to researchers at the Zoological Society of London and the Instituto Politecnico Nacional in Baja, Mexico, for devising a method to collect whale snot using a remote-control helicopter.

Biological organisms could even prove inspirational for urban planners. The transportation planning prize was awarded to UK and Japanese researchers who concluded that slime mold could be used to determine the optimal routes for railroad tracks.

"We show that the slime mold Physarum polycephalum forms networks with comparable efficiency, fault tolerance, and cost to those of real-world infrastructure networks--in this case, the Tokyo rail system," according to the abstract for the paper.

Meanwhile, the chemistry prize went to researchers at Texas A&M University and the University of Hawaii, as well as the British Petroleum company for "disproving the old belief that oil and water don't mix."

And the economics prize went to executives and directors at Goldman Sachs, AIG, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, and Magnetar "for creating and promoting new ways to invest money--ways that maximize financial gain and minimize financial risk for the world economy, or for a portion thereof."

Researchers at the University of Amsterdam and Tilburg University in The Netherlands got the prize for medicine for discovering that symptoms of asthma can be treated with a roller-coaster ride.

And finally, a project at the University of Catania in Italy was awarded the management prize for demonstrating mathematically that organizations can improve efficiency by promoting people randomly.