These Are the 10 Absolutely Weirdest Scientific Studies of the Year
Liquid cats, insect gender reversal, and the RIGHT way to carry a cup of coffee. The Ig Nobel Awards celebrate the world's oddest studies—and here are the top winners from this year.
Everyone loves strange research—we love it enough to read an entire book about it. Each year, scientists gather at Sanders Theater at Harvard University to present the Ig Nobel Prizes to honor “research that makes people laugh, then think.” Presented by the Annals of Improbable Research, they look for the strange and unusual among actual studies from the last several years—as a parody of the actual Nobel Prizes. (And real Nobel scientists actually present the awards to the winners.) Here’s a look at this year’s prize-winning participants. (And check out some recent IG Nobel Laureates while you’re at it.)
Cats are a cipher—though knowing the 17 things your cat is trying to tell you can help. They’re puzzling to scientists as well, especially physicist Marc-Antoine Fardin who specializes in rheology: The study of the flow of matter—liquids and semi-solids. Fardin tried to answer the question of whether cats are a liquid or solid with his Physics Prize-winning entry, “The Rheology of Cats,” published in the journal Rheology Bulletin. He analyzed the ways cats seem to flow to fill bowls, jars, and the tiniest of boxes, no matter what the shape. After employing some complicated equations and including a lot of adorable photos, Fardin’s study reached this conclusion: They’re both. He also notes that “Cats are proving to be a rich model system for rheological research, both in the linear and nonlinear regimes.”
A musical cure for snoring
Got a partner that can saw logs all night long? Make sure that person is aware of the best home remedies for snoring. And maybe buy him or her digeridoo lessons: A group of scientists has found that taking up the musical instrument could be the ticket. Playing this long, wooden horn native to Australia seems to strengthen the airway muscles that can collapse and cause the thunderous and strangulated breathing of sleep apnea. The study won the Peace prize by demonstrating that regular didgeridoo use decreased the number of times study participants woke up their sleep partners with their snoring—bringing the potential for quiet, restful slumber to households everywhere.
Betting and the beasts
Your next trip to a casino may go a little differently than you expected: When serious gamblers held a crocodile (you read that right) before making betting decisions, they were far more likely to bet big at a long odds. Australian researchers—winners of the Ig Nobel Economics Prize—wanted to see what effect the heightened emotions of holding a somewhat scary reptile would have on betting behavior. Study author Matthew Rockloff, a psychologist at Central Queensland University in Rockhampton, Australia, told Science: “People think they’re in control when they gamble,” he said. “But that’s not true.”
Grandpa, what big ears you have!
It sounds like the winner for the Anatomy category simply wanted to settle a pub bet. The study by UK researcher James A. Heathcote tried to determine whether your ears continue grow as you get older. “Someone said, ‘Why do old men have big ears?’ Some members thought that this was obviously true—indeed some old men have very big ears—but others doubted it, and so we set out to answer the question ‘As you get older do your ears get bigger?'” The answer? Yes indeed, by about .22 millimeters a year. And unfortunately, the larger size doesn’t do much to reduce hearing loss.
A small change to the birds-and-the-bees chat…
With a Brazilian cave-dwelling insect known as barklice, it’s the gals who have the penis, and the guys who sport a vagina, explains the international team of researchers who won the Biology Prize. The equipment seems to influence behavior: The female barklice are the promiscuous, aggressive pursuer, and the males tend to be choosy and more reticent when it comes to mating, reports Nature. But the bugs do like to take their time, with copulation lasting up to 70 hours.
Finally, the right way to carry a cup of coffee
The winner for fluid dynamics just may be able to help you avoid some serious burns during your next Starbucks run. South Korea’s Jiwon Han studied how liquids slosh in cups when you carry them, to try to determine the best way to avoid a scalding spill. “Rarely do we manage to carry coffee around without spilling it once,” Han says in the study. “In fact, due to the very commonness of the phenomenon, we tend to dismiss questioning it beyond simply exclaiming: ‘Jenkins! You have too much coffee in your cup!'” After attempting several different ways to stop the splash, Han found that carrying the cup with a clawlike grip over the top of the mug—and/or walking backward—could help minimize the mess (and the burns).
Grossed out by cheese? That’s too bad, because cheese has some surprising health benefits (here’s what your favorite cheese says about your personality). But French researchers (of course they’re French) used disgust of cheese to discover what brain mechanisms are responsible for hating a food—and it lead to them receiving the Ig Nobel for Medicine. First, the researchers found that even in France, plenty of people really dislike cheese. Then they asked cheese lovers and haters to smell different cheese-like scents while getting an MRI brain scan. Remarkably, neural pathways related to getting a reward lit up in the cheese haters—revealing that the same areas of the brain that respond to reward also register disgust. So there’s that…
Vampires: They really do want to suck your blood
Who doesn’t love creepy vampire legends? Especially when it turns out that vampire bats truly are up for a liquid human snack. The winners of the Nutrition prize, Fernanda Ito, Enrico Bernard, and Rodrigo Torres, found the first instances of vampire bats seeking out human prey in their study “What is for Dinner? First Report of Human Blood in the Diet of the Hairy-Legged Vampire Bat Diphylla ecaudata.” The D. ecaudata bats in the Caatinga dry forests of northeastern Brazil used to feast on birds, but a lack of prey seems to have forced them to move onto humans. The researchers found evidence of human DNA in their feces. In other words, yes—keep the garlic and the holy water handy.
Don’t feel bad about confusing twins anymore
Twins are endlessly fascinating—check out these wild facts about twins—and frustrating if you can’t tell them apart. Well, it turns out neither can they. Italian researchers were awarded the Ig Nobel Cognition for determining that twins presented with photos of their own or their twin’s face were just as likely to guess wrong as people who were seeing them for the first time.
Bluetooth goes where you least expect it
Tons of pregnant women play music toward their bellies for their developing fetus, but perhaps they need to get…ahem…a little more intimate with their tunes. The Obstetrics Ig Nobel was awarded to Spanish researchers who used ultrasound to track fetal facial expressions in response to music. And here’s where it gets interesting: The music was played on speakers placed on the belly, or piped in through a tampon-like device in the woman’s vagina. They discovered that babies seemed to prefer the intra-vaginal music device, as the researchers detected more fetal mouth movement. No word on what the moms-to-be preferred. However, the research has led to a patented Fetal Acoustic Stimulation Device: the Babypod.