Daft but brilliant science honoured

Ella Rhodes on this year's Ig Nobel prizes.

Silly yet serious science was honoured again at the 29th First Annual Ig Nobel awards held at Harvard University for research that makes you laugh, then think. Investigations into cube-shaped wombat poo, the scrotal temperature of naked and clothed postmen in France, and the health benefits of eating pizza (but only if it’s made and eaten in Italy) were all honoured with an Ig Nobel prize, handed to them by actual Nobel laureates, as well as a 10 trillion dollar bill from Zimbabwe. 

This year’s winner in the Psychology category was Fritz Strack for 'discovering that holding a pen in one's mouth makes one smile, which makes one happier — and for then discovering that it does not'. Strack’s 1988 study of the facial feedback hypothesis, which suggests facial expressions can influence emotions, found that people rated cartoons as funnier when they held a pen between their teeth – forcing a smile. However, in recent years 17 replication groups have attempted to test this hypothesis and overall found no significant effect. 

The Ig Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to a team from the UK, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and the USA for their attempt to measure the pleasurable sensation of scratching an itch. They found that the intensity of an itch, and the pleasurability of scratching it, were higher for itches on the ankle and back compared with the forearm. Neuroscientist Francis McGlone delivered an acceptance speech on behalf of the team via video link.

Karen Pryor and Theresa McKeon, based in the USA, won the Medical Education award for their use of clicker training in teaching orthopaedic surgery and researchers in Japan won the Chemistry award for estimating the total volume of saliva produced per day by a typical five-year-old. A research team from Singapore, China, Australia, Poland, the USA and Bulgaria were awarded the Biology prize for discovering that dead magnetised cockroaches behave differently to live magnetised cockroaches. 

The Anatomy award went to Roger Mieusset and Bourras Bengoudifa for measuring scrotal temperature asymmetry in naked and clothed postmen in France. They found a lack of symmetry in the temperature of the scrotum whether a participant was clothed or nude. 

Iman Farahbakhsh won the Engineering award for inventing a nappy-changing machine for human infants. A team of researchers based in Turkey, The Netherlands and Germany, including father and son Andreas Voss and Timothy Voss, investigated which country’s paper money was the best at transmitting dangerous bacteria. They found the Romanian Leu allowed multiple drug-resistent pathogens to grow and be transmitted.

Patricia Yang and David Hu, who won an Ig Nobel prize in 2015 for testing the biological principle that nearly all mammals empty their bladders in about 21 seconds (plus or minus 13 seconds), won their second prize this year along with colleagues Alexander Lee, Miles Chan, Alynn Martin, Ashley Edwards and Scott Carver. This year they were honoured in the Physics category for their investigation of how and why wombats make cube-shaped poo – apparently it’s partly down to the varying elasticity of wombat intestinal walls.

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