Scientists taking on the deep questions of whether cats are liquid or solid, how holding a crocodile influences gambling and whether playing the didgeridoo can help cure snoring were honoured at the Ig Nobel Prize spoof awards.
The prizes are the brainchild of Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, and are intended not to honour the best or worst in science, but rather to highlight research that encourages people to think in unusual ways.
“We hope that this will get people back into the habits they probably had when they were kids of paying attention to odd things and holding out for a moment and deciding whether they are good or bad only after they have a chance to think,” said Abrahams.
Some of the winners tend towards the spurious: French researcher Marc-Antoine Fardin’s 2014 study “Can a Cat Be Both a Solid and a Liquid?” was inspired by internet photos of cats tucked into glasses, buckets and sinks. The winner of the Ig Nobel in physics used mathematical formulas to conclude that active young cats and kittens hold their physical shape longer than older, lazier felines.
Other work on the prize list has clearer potential for practical applications.
The 2010 study, conducted on 103 people in Queensland, Australia, found that problem gamblers were likely to place higher bets after handling the reptiles, as their brains had misinterpreted the excitement of holding a dangerous animal as a sign they were on a lucky streak.
A multi-national team of six researchers won the Peace Prize for the 2005 paper “Didgeridoo Playing as Alternative Treatment for Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome: Randomized Controlled Trial.”
The conclusion that the Australian wind instrument might be of some benefit was based not the didgeridoo’s droning tone, but rather that the daily practice involved a lot of blowing, and may have strengthened the upper respiratory tract, making breathing easier.
The awards, now in their 27th year, are to be handed out by actual Nobel Prize winners in a ceremony at Harvard University.
“They are unusual approaches to things,” said Abrahams. “It would be difficult for some people to decide whether they are important or the opposite. If you had sleep apnea for a long time, the didgeridoo thing would sound quite intriguing.”