Ig Nobel fetes slippery banana peel, Jesus on toast
Every year, Harvard University's Improbable Research hosts the Ig Nobel Prize -- a series of awards in the field of scientific research that tends towards the silly, the strange and the downright odd. The aim, the organisation said, is to celebrate imagination in science -- and to draw attention to and interest in science, medicine and technology.
Physics Prize: The Slipperiness of Banana Peel
A team of researchers from Japan's Kitasato University worked together on this one: figuring out the exact slipperiness of a banana peel. They did this by measuring the amount of friction between a shoe and a banana skin, and again between a banana skin and the floor, when a person steps on a banana skin. They found that it has a frictional coefficient similar to lubricated materials.
"By the microscopic observation, it was estimated that polysaccharide follicular gel played the dominant role in lubricating effect of banana skin after the crush and the change to homogeneous sol," the team wrote. You can read the full paper here (PDF).
Neuroscience Prize: Seeing Jesus in toast
Have you ever wondered why your eyes pick out faces from seemingly random elements? It's a phenomenon called pareidolia, and it's quite common -- and probably also responsible for people who perceive religious imagery in natural phenomena. A team of researchers from Beijing Jiaotong University, Xidian University, the Institute of Automation Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China, and the University of Toronto, Canada, wanted to see exactly what happens in the minds of people who see these faces, and used functional magnetic resonance imaging to find out.
"Whole brain analyses revealed a network specialized in face pareidolia, including both the frontal and occipitotemporal regions. Our findings suggest that human face processing has a strong top-down component whereby sensory input with even the slightest suggestion of a face can result in the interpretation of a face," the study abstract reads. You can find the entire study online here.
Psychology Prize: Creatures of the Night
Those who prefer the hours of night have long been the realm of horror: from vampires to werewolves to ghosts, there is a whole host of evil that attacks under the cover of darkness -- presumably because, as diurnal creatures, the darkness puts us at a disadvantage.
It may not, however, be entirely fictional that those who embody our darker human traits prefer a corresponding level of light: according to research led by the University of Western Sydney, Australia, the night-time chronotype is more likely to embody what is known as the Dark Triad of human traits: narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism. You can find the full paper here.
Public Health Prize: Should Humans Live with Cats?
They're small and furry and ever-so paws-and-whiskery, but our feline friends bear a hidden menace. No, it's not the sheathed claws -- it's a protozoan parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, responsible for a disease called toxoplasmosis. It's estimated that up to a third of the human race is infected with toxoplasmosis, and it can be fatal for the immunocompromised.
Three papers were awarded for their contributions towards toxoplasmosis research: "Changes in the personality profile of young women with latent toxoplasmosis" from Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic; "Decreased level of psychobiological factor novelty seeking and lower intelligence in menlatently infected with the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii Dopamine, a missing link between schizophrenia and toxoplasmosis?" from CESNET in Prague; and "Describing the Relationship between Cat Bites and Human Depression Using Data from an Electronic Health Record" from the University of Michigan and Virginia Tech.
For the cat lovers out there, though, there's no need to give your furry pal the boot quite just yet: unwashed vegetables and undercooked meat are much higher risk factors for toxoplasmosis.
Biology Prize: Dogs sensitive to Earth's geomagnetic field lines
The Earth is surrounded by a geomagnetic field. It extends from the north and south magnetic poles, as though a bar magnet was placed through the centre of the Earth, out into space, where it protects the planet from solar winds. It would look, if we could see it, a little something like this.
As it turns out, dogs are sensitive to these lines. We know this because a team of researchers from the Czech University of Life Sciences, Czech Republic, and the University of Duisburg-Essen, Esse, Germany, carefully documented 1,893 instances of dogs defecating and 5,582 instances of dogs urinating.
"Dogs preferred to excrete with the body being aligned along the North–South axis under calm magnetic field conditions," the study concluded. "This directional behavior was abolished under unstable magnetic field. The best predictor of the behavioral switch was the rate of change in declination, i.e., polar orientation of the magnetic field."
Art Prize: Beautiful art can weaken pain
What you do with your mind can, in fact, affect pain levels. According to this study by researchers at the University of Bari, Italy, looking at beautiful art can help ease pain: while the researchers inflicted pain using a laser, test subjects viewed paintings that they had previously evaluated as beautiful, ugly or neutral. Pain responses were lower for beautiful artworks, while no changes was noted between neutral and ugly works.
You can view the full study here.
Economics Prize: Using crime stats to boost an economy
How do you boost an economy? You could provide stimulus packages... or you could use a resource that's already there. When the European Union mandated that its members increase the official size of its national economy, a team at the Italian government's National Institute of Statistics got creative -- and factored in revenue from illegal activities, such as prostitution, illegal drug sales and smuggling.
Medicine Prize: Treating nosebleeds with bacon
It sounds like a folk remedy or an old wives' tale, but it's true: a team of researchers has discovered a novel cure for nosebleeds. A four-year-old child presenting with a case of Glanzmann's thrombasenia -- a rare bleeding disorder -- was suffering "uncontrollable" nosebleeds, to the point where his life was in danger. Twice, the doctors packed his nose with cured pork -- and twice, the bleeding stopped completely within 24 hours, allowing the patient to return safely home.
"To our knowledge, this represents the first description of nasal packing with strips of cured pork for treatment of life-threatening hemorrhage in a patient with Glanzmann thrombasthenia," the team wrote. You can find the full study online here.
Arctic Science Prize: Polar bear disguise
Can reindeer tell the difference between polar bears, humans and humans dressed up as polar bears? One intrepid team of researchers from the University of Oslo had to find out. They devised a polar bear costume and a set of approaches based on polar bear behaviour and sought out some Svalbard reindeer to test their hypothesis.
The costume looks silly, but perhaps the deer were sillier:
"The alert, flight initiation and escape distances were 1.6, 2.5 and 2.3 times longer, respectively, when Svalbard reindeer were encountered by a person disguised as a polar bear compared to a person in dark hiking gear," the team found.
You can read the full study online here.
Nutrition Prize: Sausages from baby poop
This study, like most studies, does exactly what it says on the tin. It's just rather more gross than, well, most: "Characterization of lactic acid bacteria isolated from infant faeces as potential probiotic starter cultures for fermented sausages".
As far as we can tell, no sausages were actually made or eaten. You can find the full study online here.