The Ig Nobel awards ceremony is a marvelous spectacle encrusted with tradition. But if you really want to know how the winners did their work and why, you need to go to the Ig informal lectures, held at MIT the Saturday after the awards.
The event lets winners present a short lecture to explain the work that won them an Ig Nobel award. The catch? They only get 5 minutes–and this year, the timekeeper was an impromptu musical group loud enough to drown out anyone trying to squeeze out extra talk-time. After the talk, speakers can take 3 questions from the audience, which may or may not clear up any confusion.
And as the Ig Nobel tagline reminds you, the projects honored with an award first make people laugh, then make them think. So digging a bit under the funny surface often reveals serious attempts to solve real problems or understand significant natural phenomena.
Let’s take a closer took at some highlights of the day this year.
Molecular biologists Peter Celec and Jaroslava Drudiakova, both from Slovakia’s Comenius University, presented data that showed intense kissing can leave a kisser’s skin cells inside their partner’s mouth. Depending on the situation, that could either be a source of contamination for DNA testing, or an important piece of forensic evidence.
For example, if the kissing is heterosexual, a woman kissing her partner goodbye before a saliva-based DNA test could wind up with Y chromosome data in her results. (As he did during the Ig Nobel Awards, Marc Abrahams invited the audience to participate in the first stage of the research. This time only one couple took him up on the offer, but judging by their performance they definitely left some contaminating cells behind.)
Next, Japanese doctor Hajime Kimata presented the results of his investigations about the effects of kissing on allergic reactions. He mostly listed the romantic movies he’d used to compile the soft music his couples listened to during the experiment. But his final graph earned an appreciative “OOOOOH” from the audience: it showed that kissing for 30 minutes reduced allergic reactions to dust mites and cedar pollen, but simply hugging for 30 minutes did not. Remember that next time you get hay fever.
Gregory Weiss and Colin Rastin took turns explaining the method they’d developed to take hard-boiled egg whites and turn them back into clear gooey liquid. The process involves adding urea to the solid egg white and putting the mixture through a vortexing device that applies large shear stresses to the proteins and mechanically refolds them.
I asked Weiss what proteins he really wants to untangle: egg whites were really just a proof of concept, and he hopes that the method can be used to make better vaccines or drugs with targeted types of protein folds.
Anthropologist Elisabeth Oberzaucher gave a lively talk that outlined the parameters of her model on the reproductive abilities (and limitations) of Moulay Ismael the Bloodthirsty. Moulay Ismael is often used as an example of peak human male reproductive output, but no one had done the math to see whether the historical reports were actually feasible. Oberzaucher did so, finding that Ismael’s harem size made it possible, but only if Ismael had sex an average of twice a day, every day, for 32 years.
Michael L. Smith, a graduate student in Tom Seeley’s lab at Cornell University, explained how he tested the relative pain of insect stings on different parts of the human body. On himself.
It shows an amazing dedication to controlled trials. He used honeybees in the experiment because the Schmidtt insect pain index is standardized around the pain of a honeybee sting. He did multiple trials on each part of his body, and for each experimental sting he first stung his forearm as a standard pain control.
And while a sting on the nerve-rich penile shaft hurt a lot — plus, he admitted, “it was a way to sneak the words ‘penis shaft’ into the abstract of a paper” — the nostril and upper lip hurt worse. Asked why, Smith hypothesizes that our strongest pain responses are going to be found in areas where stings could cause the most damage.
Remember, never inhale a bee.
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