Wave-Riding Ducks, Synchronized Hearts, And Constipated Scorpions Win Ig Nobel Prizes

This year’s awards for science that “makes you laugh and then makes you think” have been revealed, proving a global pandemic hasn’t forced the humor out of science.


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

line of ducklings swimming behind their mother
Image credit: JMSH photography/

Many animals, most famously skinks, drop body parts in an effort to distract predators, but when some scorpions do it, they lose their anus as well, leading to extreme constipation. This year’s Ig Nobel prize for biology has gone to the scientists who asked the important question: what is the effect on the walking capacity of arachnids being unable to lose their s***?

No animal sacrifices a body part lightly, but when lizards lose their tails they can grow them back, even if it takes a frustratingly long time. For scorpions, tail shedding is a bigger sacrifice. “Individuals lose nearly 25 percent of their body mass and the last portion of the digestive tract, including the anus, which prevents defecation and leads to constipation, because regeneration does not occur,” Dr Solimary García-Hernández and Dr Glauco Machado write in their prize-winning paper.


Some might puzzle as to why any creature would make a sacrifice that deprives them of the ability to feed normally, but the authors show the type of focus that wins awards like this by investigating running capacity instead.

The anus has a starring role in another of the prizes, awarded for Art History (the Ig Nobels have never stuck rigidly to the categories listed in Alfred Nobel’s will). The suitably named pair Dr Peter de Smet and Dr Nicholas Hellmuth studied what they believe to be representations of people getting ritual enemas on classic Maya pottery. They concluded the images portrayed alcohol and possibly psychedelic drugs being administered rectally and speculate water lilies may have hallucinogenic effects when taken this way. 

Amazingly, this paper waited 36 years to win the attention it so clearly deserves, having been cited just 12 times by other scientific papers in the intervening years.

Anyone who considers the Ig Nobels a celebration of the waste of taxpayers’ money should consider another piece of research long overdue for attention. In 1999, Professor Gen Matsuzaki and co-authors examined the most efficient way to turn a knob. No, not the conversion of an unpleasant person into a useful member of society, but an actual doorknob. 


The finding of the relationship between knob circumference and the optimum number of fingers to turn it has potential applications throughout our everyday lives, although Matsuzaki said his award was for “focusing on a problem that no one cares about.”

Even more important was the work that won the Medicine Prize, which found consuming ice cream can reduce a side effect of chemotherapy. The authors felt they had to fancy it up by calling the treatment "cryotherapy", but what matters is future patients will not only suffer less of a painful and dangerous complication but treat their tastebuds as well.

There could probably be a billion-dollar app in the discovery awarded the Applied Cardiology Prize: when people experience mutual romantic attraction their heart rates synchronize

Even what may seem pure whimsy – two papers revealing why ducklings benefit from swimming in line – could turn out to have applications in shipping. Professor Frank Fish, first author of one of the two winning papers on the topic said: “You’re not doing science if you’re not having fun.”


The development and use of a moose crash test dummy, awarded the Safety Engineering Prize, might have more geographically limited applications, but the authors provide useful advice for drivers – swerve to get behind the moose's tail, not in front of its head.

Even the Peace Prize was awarded for scientific research, revealing honesty is only sometimes the best policy when it comes to gossiping

The full ceremony, complete with opera, scorpion models, terrible duck puns, and winners getting 10 trillion-Zimbabwean dollar notes can be seen below.

Oh, and the scorpion researchers? They found that scorpions of the species Ananteris balzani initially ran just as fast after their tail dropped off as before. Over time, however, all the scorpion poop filling up the digestive tract slowed the males down, but not the females, even when overfed. Make of that what you will.


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