Liquid cats, sex-swapped bugs lead silly science awards

The 2017 Ig Nobel awards honor some of the most absurd science, thrusting cats in containers of all shapes into the spotlight. None were harmed.

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Eric Mack
3 min read

Liquid? Solid? More like feline Jell-O.

Video screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

Can a cat be both a solid and a liquid? It's a question that was posed by a popular internet meme a few years back, and one researcher attempted to provide a serious answer. 

The University of Lyon's Marc-Antoine Fardin used actual fluid dynamics to study the issue with real, rather than "fuzzy" math. His effort earned him the 2017 Ig Nobel prize for physics in a ceremony Thursday night at Harvard University.

The long-running annual awards honor scientific "achievements that first make people laugh, then make them think."

There was much laughter from the crowd in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as Fardin took the stage to accept the prize, backed by numerous images of cats in bowls, baskets and other forms. (You can watch the webcast below.) 

"Are cats a liquid? I saw this question asked on the internet and it was based on the common definition that a liquid is a material that can adapt its shape to its container," Fardin explained in his brief acceptance speech. "And it seems to be the case."

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Fardin says he wanted to use the (rough, sandpaper-like) tongue-in-cheek question to highlight some of the real concepts that are studied in rheology, which is the study of flows. As such, his paper, "On the Rheology of Cats," from the July 2014 Rheology Bulletin (starting on page 16 in the PDF) is surprisingly serious and pretty much unreadable to the non-rheologist.

The event is as much comedy show as it is earnest awards ceremony. The peace prize went to an international team that published a 2006 paper titled "Didgeridoo playing as alternative treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome: randomised controlled trial" in the respected BMJ, formerly The British Medical Journal. 

Another BMJ paper from 1995 asked "Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?" and won the anatomy prize. The answer, by the way, probably has something to do with male hair loss making all those old-man ears more noticeable.

The biology prize went to researchers from Japan, Brazil and Switzerland who made a discovery both mind-bending and gender-bending: a cave-dwelling insect with reversed genitals. The females of a type of Brazilian bug have penis-like privates that are inserted into the males.

Other winning topics of study included the first report of human blood in the diet of a vampire bat, the dynamics of spilling coffee while walking backward, and what exactly happens in the brain to make some people disgusted by cheese

The cause of that last one should be as obvious as the answer to the old-man ears question: Clearly people who have seen fluid cats work their way into the holes in a Swiss cheese wheel can never look at the stuff the same way again. 

You can watch the full, silly ceremony below:

First published Sept. 15, 10:54 a.m. PT. 
Update, 12:05 p.m. PT: Added information about the biology prize. 

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