Ig Nobel Prizes 2021

From upside-down rhinos to analysing cat-human interactions, the science that 'makes you laugh, then think'...
14 September 2021

Interview with 

Marc Abrahams, Improbable Research

AWARD-TROPHY

A first place trophy.

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One of the most eagerly awaited dates on the scientific calendar has just arrived with the announcement of the winners of this year's ignobel prizes. Every year, some of the most unusual scientific studies - that famously make people laugh, but then stop and think - win this great honour. Chris Smith spoke with Marc Abrahams who founded the Ig Nobel Prizes and oversees the ceremony to talk through this year’s crop of the cream of scientific endeavour...

Marc - These are prizes for something unusual. So they may strike you as being important or completely worthless or whatever, but there's more to them than you expect. We've been doing this, as you point out, for 31 years now

Chris - When you set them up, did you think you'd be having a conversation with me 31 years later, or at least anyone, about this initiative?

Marc - I believe I did not have that very specific wish, but generally we hope that it will continue for a long time. We've been very happy to see that it has been, and we hope will be, continuing for quite a while

Chris - You came to Cambridge once and did a presentation during the Cambridge Science Festival on this and made everyone roar with laughter, but when you normally run them you normally do this on stage and people come to visit you for them. Obviously that hasn't happened because of the pandemic, has it?

Marc - Normally this happens at Harvard University here in the US inside the biggest theatre there, so there are 1100 people jammed into the audience and winners come - 10 winners a year - from around the World. We have a bunch of Nobel Prize winners there to shake their hands, and everybody's throwing paper aeroplanes at each other for an hour and a half. But yes, we couldn't do that because of the pandemic. So last year, and again this year, we've done the whole thing online, which is much more complicated, at least in a different way

Chris - What sorts of entries have you considered though? Because obviously that hasn't changed - people are still doing fantastic science around the World, despite the best efforts of coronavirus to thwart science

Marc - Yeah, we still get many thousands of new nominations every year. Let me just dive into a few of this year's. One of them was the Biology Prize, which went to a team in Sweden - Susanne Schötz and her colleagues. They analysed variations in purring, chirping, chattering, trilling, tweedling, murmuring, meowing, moaning, squeaking, hissing, yowling, growling and other modes of cat-human communication

Chris - I think we've actually got a clip of that one. Let's have a listen to her. This is her actually doing the cat noises...

<CAT NOISES>

Chris - I bet she's great fun at dinner parties

Marc - Yes, I bet you're right about that

Chris - The other one that caught my eye this year, as a microbiologist with an interest in all things microbes, was this paper on people looking at what's living in chewing gum. I love that

Marc - Yeah, this is a team in Valencia, Spain, that analysed chewing gum that they took off pavements in many different countries and they analysed what kinds of bacteria are living in those wads of chewing gum

Chris - And what did they conclude?

Marc - It's different. And also that if the gum has been there on the sidewalk for quite a while, if somebody goes and very carefully analyses that hunk of chewed chewing gum, you can get a sort of history of what was happening there on the bacterial level, because it changes from the surface down into the interior, about how things progressed during the long period that the gum was living on the sidewalk

Chris - Any other prizes that particularly stand out?

Marc - The explosion of press coverage initially seems to centre on the Transportation Prize we gave to a large international team for some work that they did in Namibia. They did some experiments to try to see whether it's safer to transport an airborne rhinoceros upside down. They were trying to move some of the rhinoceroses who are growing scarce from areas where they live now, which are becoming extremely dangerous, to areas quite a distance away that would probably be much safer places for them to live, but it's not such a simple thing to transport a rhinoceros. It was too far to do it easily and well by truck. So they were using helicopters. And the question came, how do you do this in a way that's safest for the rhinoceroses? They did some tests and discovered that health-wise, it seems to be notably better for the rhinoceroses to be dangled upside down by their legs. Before they did this with the rhinoceroses, they ran a bunch of tests on human beings - on themselves - dangling each other upside down

Chris - I've been on a few flights where it's been uncomfortable and leg room has been an issue. I hope this doesn't give our low-cost airlines any ideas

Marc - Possibly you haven't thought this through

Chris - Go on

Marc - Possibly this is a good idea

Chris - But did they actually do the experiment? Have they actually done the experiment with real rhinos, Marc?

Marc - Yeah, this has been going on for quite a while, and this has become now the standard method for transporting rhinos. And they're also starting to use this as a fairly standard method for transporting other very large animals - elephants and others. They have experiments planned for possibly giraffes and some additional kinds of animals

Chris - So this must be one wonderful example of how an Ig Nobel Prize winning paper was serious science that has not just made people laugh and think, but also translated into real positive action

Marc - Yeah, it's a good reminder that almost all science, when it's in its very first stage, involves just a small number of people doing something that might look kind of crazy to everybody except themselves

Chris - I'm going to keep my thinking cap on. We did make a chocolate teapot once. Maybe I'll send you our manuscript on the making of a chocolate teapot to test whether it really does actually hold water

Marc - That would be so kind of you, thank you

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