The co-winner of this year's Ig Nobel prize for physics, Dr Ivan Maksymov, has proven lockdowns needn't stop the march of scientific progress by getting earthworms drunk on vodka, putting them on a speaker, and measuring their vibrations with a laser.
Bizarre as it sounds, the study is a spin-off of some genuinely important brain research.
A project of the Annals of Improbable Research, the Ig Nobel awards initially mocked work that “Cannot or should not be replicated,” but has since expanded to cover any science that “First makes you laugh, then makes you think.” Many fine and important papers have been honored in this way, along with some that fit the original description.
Maksymov and collaborator Dr Andriy Pototsky, both of Australia's Swinburne University, are seeking to test a hypothesis that sound waves, as well as electrical impulses, carry information within the brain. Naturally, some preparation needs to occur before one starts vibrating living brains to test the idea, so Maksymov decided to establish the response of a simple organism.
“Earthworms were used because they are cheap, don’t require ethics approval, and their axons are somewhat similar to mammalian nerve fibres. Plus, one can easily anaesthetize a worm using vodka.” Maksymov said in a statement. He told IFLScience he should thank his teacher in his native Ukraine, who used watered down vodka to anesthetize animals for experiments, as it was safer than pure ethanol if the students drank it.
With the university closed for the pandemic, Maksymov constructed a laboratory in his shed and placed four species of worms on a sub-woofer and observed the frequencies of their vibrations.
Having analyzed the results they submitted their work to a leading physics journal that told them it was "outside the journal's scope,” Maksymov told IFLScience A second physics journal was less kind, disputing whether the research was even possible with the equipment used. Finally, it was published in the respected journal Scientific Reports.
Australia has won a wildly disproportionate number of Ig Nobels (unlike Nobels). Maksymov said his adopted nation is “A land of opportunities and open thinking. In some countries, a senior colleague would have said this was a waste of money.”
Maksymov told IFLScience they are making progress on seeking acoustic waves in the brain, but “Cannot rigorously say we have demonstrated them yet”. Since starting, Maksymov discovered his methods can assist engineers attempting to model robots on earthworms to measure the worms' stiffness coefficient.
Other Ig Nobel winners include a Materials Science prize awarded for proving knives made from frozen human poop don't cut. Many entomologists are scared of spiders but not the insects they study, and an award in Entomology was created for the discovery these arachnophobes' least favorite thing about spiders is the way they move, followed by fear of being bitten.
The Economics prize sought a relationship between a nation's income inequality and how often its populace kiss, while an alligator breathing helium won experimenters a prize in Acoustics. The researchers were attempting to discover how alligators produce their mating bellows. The higher frequencies produced when breathing a mix of helium and oxygen demonstrated that, like humans, crocodilians use their vocal tracts, a hint dinosaurs may have done the same.
Beyond science, the Management Prize went to five hitmen who tried to subcontract murders to each other, and the world leaders who have most bungled the Covid-19 response – US President Donald Trump, the UK's Boris Johnson, Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro, and Russia's Vladimir Putin to name a few – were awarded a Medical Education prize “For using the COVID-19 viral pandemic to teach the world that politicians can have a more immediate effect on life and death than scientists and doctors can.”