Ig Nobel prizewinners present ‘improbable research’

Several of the 2017 Ig Nobel prizewinners presented their research Saturday to the public at the Ig Informal Lectures in 10-250. Two previous prizewinners presented their winning research as well.

Lecturers were kept within a five-minute limit by a novel timing system: a panel of audience members seated at the front of the room acted as a cat chorus, erupting in meows with each passing minute.

After the five minutes elapsed, the audience had the opportunity to ask questions of the lecturers.

Ten Ig Nobel prizes are awarded each year by the magazine Annals of Improbable Research to work that “makes people laugh and then think,” according to their website. This year, prizes were awarded in a wide range of fields including fluid dynamics, cognition, peace, and obstetrics.

The lectures began with Dr. John Culvenor, who won the Physics prize in 2003 with his paper “An Analysis of the Forces Required to Drag Sheep over Various Surfaces.” Culvenor and his team investigated the physics of Australian sheep shearers dragging sheep by the front legs across floors, and looked at how that affected the shearers ergonomically.

The 2017 Peace prize was awarded to a group that discovered that learning to play the didgeridoo is an effective treatment for sleep apnea and snoring, because of the way it stimulates and exercises the upper airways. The group members in attendance, Alex Suarez and Dr. Milo Puhan, brought in one of their specially-designed instruments and gave an impromptu performance as part of the lecture. Dr. Nicole Sharp, best known for her blog Fuck Yeah Fluid Dynamics, followed their lecture with a short presentation and demonstration on the fluid-dynamic aspects of their research.

Jiwon Han won the 2017 Fluid Dynamics prize for research he conducted while in high school on how best to hold a mug of coffee to minimize spillage while walking. He found that a “claw” grip — that is, with the fingertips gripping the outer rim of the mug, worked better than holding the side of the mug. Walking backward also worked effectively because people’s irregular gait while walking backward creates less resonance in the cup.

It is often said that playing Mozart to a child in utero makes the child smarter. But how can we make sure the fetus hears it? This year’s Obstetrics prizewinners, a team of researchers from Spain, investigated whether fetuses responded more strongly to music played via speakers placed on the abdomen or to music played via an intravaginal speaker. They measured the responses with an MRI and found that the fetuses made more facial movements (including sticking out their tongues) when sounds were played with the intravaginal speaker.

The final speaker was Thomas Thwaites, who won last year’s Biology award for his project in which he attempted to live as an alpine goat for a few days. This project took him all over the world, involving consultations with people of all kinds, including a Danish shaman, a neurologist, and, naturally, a man in charge of a goat sanctuary. During the question-and-answer session, one audience member simply asked him, “Why?” His response: “It was a dream.... Why go to the moon?”

The lectures and Thursday’s prize ceremony were live-streamed on the Improbable Research Facebook page. The full videos of both events are available there and on the group’s YouTube channel.