IgNobel Prize: Calorific cannibals

25 September 2018

Interview with

James Cole, University of Brighton

The Nobel prizes show off the best of human scientific achievement, but have you heard of the IgNobel prizes? Adam Murphy spoke to one of this year’s winners to learn about honouring the lighter side of science…

Adam - Every year the Nobel Prize is awarded to the most humanity advancing breakthroughs - the pinnacle of achievement. But they’re not what’s really important - the IgNobel Prizes are awarded to science that makes you laugh, before it makes you think.

Prizes this year were taken home for “analyzing the potential of saliva as a cleaning fluid”, and for “the effectiveness of employees using voodoo dolls against their bosses”. But what else wins that kind of prize. I got to speak to one of this year’s winners, James Cole of the University of Brighton about the work that earned him such a prestigious honour…

James - I was looking at trying to estimate the calorific value of the human body but in the context of looking a paleolithic sites and human evolution.

Adam - That is to say did ancient humans eat people? Is that nutritionally useful or does it cost you an arm and a leg?

James - We know from the archeological records that human cannibalism seems to be at least a persistent behaviour through our evolutionary journey, and one of the oldest sites that we have goes back almost a million years. Now we have a relatively small fossil record, and even within that small fossil record we still see signs on bones like cut marks, long bone breakage, even teeth marks that demonstrate that this cannibalism behaviour was present.

What is unclear though is exactly why this behaviour was done. If you compare the calories that you get from a human body, which is what my study was trying to work out, to animals we know were successfully hunted by our ancestors like the neanderthals. So this is things like horse, or bison, or mammoth even. It would seem that we actually aren’t terribly calorie rich in comparison to those big animals. The amount of calories you would get from a human being seems to fall kind of where you would expect for an animal of our size, but we are just much smaller than a horse or a cow or obviously a mammoth.

Adam - How did you work out the calorific content of a human being?

James - Yes, so no humans were harmed during the course of the study. But effectively what I did is I looked at some studies that were done in the 40s and the 50s that looked at the chemical composition of the human body. And they broke down various body parts into its various chemical components, and part of that were protein and fat values. If you have protein and fat values along with body weight, you can work out calories.

Adam - With your IgNobel Prize, how did that come about? How did you find out you had won that?

James - It was really quite a wonderful process really. In April I got a very mysterious email - friends in Boston are interested in talking to you, and this is what Mark Abrams really does who’s the IgNobel person in charge. They send out offers of invitation to accept the award in case anybody decides it’s not something that they would quite like. And thankfully, as he says in his welcome speeches and things, pretty much everybody always accepts, but there is always a chance to turn it down.

Personally, I was extremely honoured and very pleased to have been offered the award because the IgNobels stand for scientific studies that, I think in their catchphrase, make you laugh and then make you think. And whilst I wasn’t necessarily out to make people laugh with my study I was definitely out to make them think.

So I was really pleased that I had been recognised on that. Cannibalism is always going to be a controversial subject and a subject of interest, and slightly left field, so it was great that that was recognised in that way.

Adam - And this work is no exception, there’s some real ‘meat’ to this story too…

James - The more that we can understand our ancestors and even our own species in deep time, the more that we can really understand who we are today and how we got here. And that understanding can only lead to a better future and, hopefully, a more inclusive one that takes into account the full complexity and range of who we are.

Adam - But are the IgNobels just a silly joke or is there value to them?

James - The IgNobels, I mean they have a huge audience. I think from last year’s ceremony almost a hundred thousand people watched that live stream. So the IgNobels have this huge reach and that can only be good for science because science is not just about standing in a lab coat looking down a microscope thinking really deeply about something. Science is inquisitive; it can be fun and the IgNobels really capture the essence of that in the fun and quirky way that they present them. It’s science that makes you laugh and then think!

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