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Ig Nobel awards honor scientific research that's way off the beaten path

Patrick Varine
| Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018, 12:36 p.m.

If you’re a cannibal on a diet, just how many calories are there in the human body?

If your boss mistreats you, will burning and stabbing a voodoo doll give you a sense of justice and wellbeing?

Most importantly, can you use human saliva as a cleaning agent for 18th century sculptures?

Answers to these — and to many other questions nearly no one has thought to ask — were recognized at this year’s Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, held Sept. 13 at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre.

About 9,000 studies were nominated for the Ig Nobel Prize, a parody of the prestigious Nobel Prize that celebrates the unusual, honors the imaginative, and aims to spur interest in science.

Actual Nobel laureates, including Harvard University economist Eric Maskin , congratulated the Ig Nobel winners on stage at the event, which also featured comedic skits, a deluge of paper airplanes and a Speedo-wearing human spotlight. Along with a heart-shaped trophy, the researchers received a cash prize: a 10-trillion-dollar bill from Zimbabwe, whose currency has been suspended indefinitely.

Kees Moeliker , a Dutch ornithologist who helps judge the Ig Nobel competition, said the award helps highlight scholarship that might otherwise receive little attention. In an e-mail interview from Rotterdam, he said he has seen an uptick in the number of research studies nominated each year.

“The Ig Nobels are now marked in every scientist’s calendar,” wrote Moeliker, who’s also the European Bureau Chief of the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research , which produces the Ig Nobel awards ceremony. “Department heads send in work of colleagues, students nominate their professors.”

Moeliker recalled how more career opportunities opened for him after he won an Ig Nobel in 2003 for documenting the first case of homosexual necrophilia in a mallard duck.

“The world knows my interest in remarkable animal behavior and I got so much new exciting data,” he wrote. “Book contracts followed, and I even became director of the museum where I work. Before winning the Ig Nobel, only seven people had actually read my duck paper.”

Here are the winning studies from this year’s ceremony:

The other nine winning research studies are:

“Assessing the Calorific Significance of Episodes of Human Cannibalism in the Paleolithic” : A study of cannibalism that finds that human meat has much fewer calories than meat from animals such as bison, cattle and horses.

“Validation of a Functional Pyelocalyceal Renal Model for the Evaluation of Renal Calculi Passage While Riding a Roller Coaster” : A study that looks at roller coasters as a way to speed up the passage of kidney stones.

“Spontaneous Cross-Species Imitation in Interactions Between Chimpanzees and Zoo Visitors” : An observational study that finds that chimpanzees in a zoo imitate human visitors about as often as human visitors imitate the chimpanzees.

“Human Saliva as a Cleaning Agent for Dirty Surfaces” : A study that examines human saliva as an effective cleaning agent for removing dirt from 18th century sculptures.

“Nocturnal Penile Tumescence Monitoring with Stamps” : A study that uses postage stamps as a screening test for impotence.

“Colonoscopy in the Sitting Position: Lessons Learned from Self-Colonoscopy by Using a Small-Caliber, Variable-Stiffness Colonoscope” : A report that describes the ease and comfort of performing a self-colonoscopy.

“Life Is Too Short to RTFM: How Users Relate to Documentation and Excess Features in Consumer Products” : A study that finds that most people don’t read instruction manuals, especially men and people with higher education levels.

“Shouting and Cursing While Driving: Frequency, Reasons, Perceived Risk and Punishment” : A study that measures how often and why some Spanish drivers shout and curse while driving.

“The Scent of the Fly” : A study of fruit flies that demonstrates that wine experts can detect, by smell, the presence of a female fruit fly in a glass of wine and that a fly can spoil a glass of wine, provided it’s female.

“Righting a Wrong: Retaliation on a Voodoo Doll Symbolizing an Abusive Supervisor Restores Justice,” a study to determine if employees who had been mistreated by their bosses would benefit from torturing an online voodoo doll — a harmless act of symbolic retaliation.

Click here to visit the Improbable Research website.

Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Patrick at 724-850-2862, pvarine@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MurrysvilleStar.

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