September is awards season in the science world. We’ve had the prestigious Breakthrough Prizes, the Golden Goose Awards for surprisingly beneficial science, and now the winners of 2019’s Ig Nobel Awards – “for achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think" – have been announced.
Among the winners from multiple different scientific fields, studies involving French postmen's left testicles, the life-saving properties of eating pizza (but only in Italy), the curiously cubic shape of wombat poop, and which part of the body is most pleasurable to scratch all triumphed.
In its 29th year, the Ig Nobels, an affectionate parody of its prestigious namesake – and an accolade arguably as in-demand – celebrates the unusual and imaginative science that may have you initially questioning why a study was awarded funding, only to recognize its scientific merit.
For example, you may wonder why scientists training surgeons to perform orthopedic surgery using the classic animal training “clicker” reward system (think Owen Grady and his raptors in Jurassic World) won the Medical Education Prize. Turns out, just like in animal training, it reinforces positive behavior, achieving better precision, and we all want that from those performing our surgery.
The Economics prize went to Dutch researchers who revealed Romanian banknotes are best at transmitting dangerous bacteria, the Chemistry award to Japanese researchers who discovered the amount of saliva produced by a 5-year-old in a day (half a liter), and the Medicine prize to Italian scientists determined to explore the evidence that pizza may protect against illness and death (if the pizza is made and eaten in Italy) in many different papers over the years.
Of particular note, among such inspiring contenders, French researchers won the Anatomy prize for attempting to settle the mystery of whether men’s testicles are a different temperature. Recruiting French postmen, and testing the temperature of their left testicle when clothed and unclothed, they concluded the left testicle runs hotter than the right. This could be related to why one testis hangs lower than the other, to prevent collision and aid cooling.
Previous Ig Nobel winners (in 2015 for the “law of urination”: all mammals empty their bladder in 21 seconds), won the Physics prize for explaining why wombat poop is cubed. The Peace prize went to an international team trying to measure the pleasurability of scratching an itch (the ankle and forearm are the most satisfying places, and scratching does indeed reduce the itchy feeling, albeit temporarily). Silly as this seems, chronic itching can be devastating to sufferers who can scratch until they bleed, making them at risk of infection. Finding out how the body reacts leads us closer to treatment.
Special recognition should go to the Psychology prize – often derided as not a real science – for demonstrating perfectly how science works. In 1988, German researchers discovered holding a pen to your mouth makes you smile, making you feel happier, demonstrating a facial feedback mechanism. The study became pretty famous, and no one questioned it, until one of the researchers attempted to replicate their own research in 2016 and found they couldn’t, reporting on that instead.
The Ig Nobels may celebrate the bizarre, unusual, and downright weird, but as the popular quote attributed to American biochemist and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov goes: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!”'(I found it!) but 'That’s funny…'”