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.
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
"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).
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:Kitasato University, Kiyoshi Mabuchi et al
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.
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.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:Nosferatu film still public domain
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
It's estimated that up to a third of the human race is infected with
toxoplasmosis, and it can be fatal for the immunocompromised.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:Lorena Torres Angelini, CC BY-SA 2.0
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
"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."
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.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:Sydney Long, 1897, public domain
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
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:William James Herschel, public domain
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
"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.
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.
Published:Caption:Michelle StarrPhoto:Polar bear image by Kuribo, CC BY 2.0; University of Oslo
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".