Cancer-preventing pizza, deceased magnetic cockroaches, and cube-shaped poop discoveries honored in the 2019 Ig Nobel Prizes

The 2019 Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony was held in September at Harvard University, where the world’s top thinkers gathered to celebrate the year’s strangest scientific advances. The competition was fierce. The particles in the air were ionized by the sheer dynamicity of it.

 Science, at times, can be a little stuffy. Scientists, on the other hand, can be exceedingly ridiculous people. In recognition of the latter, the Ig Nobel Prizes recognize achievements that make people laugh…then think. Sometimes science answers questions about the fundamental wonders of our galaxy, but other times, it answers far smaller and weirder questions. Every year, 10 prizes are awarded to scientists with discoveries that are exceedingly eccentric.

Paper airplane competition at the 2019 Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony (credit: Improbable Research)

 The ceremony itself is a rather strange affair. It begins as all distinguished ceremonies do, with a paper airplane competition, where audience members must aim for a helmet-clad human target on stage:

 Let’s take a closer look at this year’s winners:

 Medicine: Pizza can protect against cancer

 Here’s the catch, it’s not just any frozen pizza, that pizza must be from Italy. The finding is the result of three papers published by Silvano Gallus and a team of food scientists over the course of a few years that showed Italian pizza eaters were at a lower risk of developing certain chronic illnesses. The pizza itself isn’t healthy, but in Italy at least, it might be indicative of a certain lifestyle. According to Gallus, eating Italian pizza with local ingredients is a good indicator of following a Mediterranean diet based on local foods.

 Medical education: Clicker training is great for training dogs, and orthopedic surgeons!

 Clickers have long been used as a tool to train various types of animals. It lets an animal know they’re doing well in a concise and concrete way. It turns out that humans need that too. By simply saying “good” in a neutral tone, surgeons can better learn necessary techniques. Dr. Martin Levy examined this behavior with residents, finding that those who received positive reinforcement tended to master concepts more than those who did not.

 Biology: Dead magnetized cockroaches behave differently than living magnetized cockroaches

 Ok so obviously a dead cockroach behaves differently than a live cockroach, but specifically, the magnetic fields also behave differently. So why do they do this, and why is that important? The researchers wanted to understand how some animals detect magnetic fields, which could inform biologically-inspired sensors. A detection mechanism remains elusive, but the discovery is fascinating nonetheless. In celebration of the award, scientists threw rubber cockroaches at the audience. So festive.

 Chemistry: An estimation of the total saliva production for the average five-year-old

 A lot. Specifically, 500 ml per day. The study in question was conducted over 35 years ago in Japan, led by a professor of pediatric dentistry Shigeru Watanabe. Accompanied by his two sons (who participated in the study of children), Watanabe accepted the award and demonstrated the proper way to collect saliva. Patience is the key.

Marc Abrahams, a co-founder of the Annals of Improbable Research, holding a coveted Ig Nobel Prize trophy (Credit: Reuters).

 Engineering: The diaper-changing machine

 Continuing on with the children theme, mechanical engineering professor Iman Farahbakhsh at the Islamic Azad University won this year’s engineering prize, which not only changes diapers but also washes infants. For everyone that has wished that changing diapers was as easy as washing dishes, the time is finally here. The patent is approved, so stay tuned!

 Peace: Quantifying the pleasure of scratching an itch

 Why is it that scratching an itch feels so nice? And why are some body parts more gratifying to scratch than others? A team led by scientist Ghada A. bin Saif were studying chronic conditions that drive patients to uncontrollably scratch, and which areas are most affected. Turns out, if you’re feeling itchy, scratching your ankle will feel the best, in comparison to other itches.

 Economics: Determining which currency is the best at transmitting bacteria

 If you’re looking to grow bacteria, look no further than your own wallet. Currency is widely known for being an efficient transporter of all types of germs, but it turns out that some are more efficient than others. Because Romanian banknotes are made of polymers, and not textile fibers, they provide a better habitat for certain types of bacteria. If you’re a bacterium and you’re reading this, take note.

 Psychology: Putting a pen in your mouth makes you happier…just kidding no it doesn’t

 If you were to put a pen in your mouth, you’ll need to force your muscles into a quasi-smile. According to some psychologists, the simple act of smiling, whether you want to or not. Will make you happier. At least that’s what German psychologist Fritz Strack found in the 80s. In 2016, he attempted to recreate his experiment and found that this is not necessarily the case, proving himself wrong. In carefully-controlled experiments, this may be the case, but in the chaos of real life, not so much.

 Physics: How wombats make cubed-shaped poop

Finally, let’s get to the physics, the physics of…poop.

Wombats use poop to mark their territory. Because of its cubic shape, it’s less likely to roll away, but until recently, researchers had no idea why. Last year, at the annual meeting of the APS Fluid Dynamics division in Atlanta, researchers presented a new idea. It all has to to with the low elasticity of their intestines, which help constrict the waste to its distinctive shape.

Interested in hearing more about these discoveries? Check out the webcast of the ceremony!

 –Lissie Connors

 Lissie Connors is a graduate student studying volcanoes at the University of Oregon. She regularly contributes to PhysicsBuzz, writing about anything from theoretical universes, to the nexus of nuclear physics and mayonnaise.

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