Ig Nobel awards go to slime mould and fruity bats

Britain has once again proved a country to be reckoned with in science after landing a national record four wins at the annual Ig Nobel awards ceremony at Harvard University.

Researchers from across the UK were honoured for achievements that included proof that swearing relieves pain, a means of collecting whale snot with a remote-controlled helicopter and the first documented case of fellatio in fruit bats.

Not to be confused with the real (and more lucrative) Nobel prizes, which are due to be announced next week, the “Igs” are awarded to scientists whose work makes people laugh first and think later.

The ceremony, hosted by the Harvard-based journal Annals of Improbable Research, took place on last night with the much-coveted prizes handed out by real Nobel laureates. Recipients were allowed a maximum of 60 seconds to deliver their acceptance speech, a time limit enforced by an eight-year-old girl.

Commenting on the strong showing of UK scientists this year, Marc Abrahams, the master of ceremonies, told the Guardian: “The nation may agonise over its place in the world, but in this one thing at least, Britannia rules.”

The Ig Nobel 2010 winners were:

Medicine prize
Psychologists Simon Rietveld and Ilja van Beest at the University of Amsterdam share the award for discovering that breathing difficulties brought on by asthma can be alleviated by repeated rollercoaster rides.

Physics prize
Awarded to Lianne Parkin and her team at the University of Otago in New Zealand for demonstrating that people are less likely to slip over on icy footpaths if they wear their socks outside their shoes instead of inside.

Biology prize
A description of the sexual antics of the short-nosed fruit bat earned the award for Gareth Jones at Bristol University and collaborators in China. The team showed that females who performed oral sex on their mates copulated for longer. “It is the first documented case of fellatio by adult animals other than humans to my knowledge, and opens questions about whether female animals can manipulate males via sexual activity, perhaps in this case to improve their chances of successful fertilisation,” Jones told the Guardian. He planned to demonstrate the behaviour at the ceremony using puppets.

Writing about the research for the Huffington Post last year, the primatologist Frans de Waal said: “The fellatio story on bats is a bright spot in an otherwise miserable record that denies animals the pleasure principle, homosexuality, and other forms of non-reproductive sex.”


Peace prize
Awarded to psychologist Richard Stephens and others at Keele University for confirming that swearing relieves pain. Stephens, who began the study after striking his thumb with a hammer, found volunteers could tolerate more pain if they repeated swearwords rather than neutral words. He suspects that “swearing induces a fight-or-flight response and nullifies the link between fear of pain and pain perception”.

Engineering prize
The task of monitoring dangerous bugs in whales at sea is a formidable one. Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse and others at the Institute of Zoology in London developed a way to collect fluids ejected from whales’ blowholes by attaching petri dishes to the underside of small, remote-controlled helicopters and hovering them overhead.

Transportation prize
Working with Japanese scientists, Mark Fricker and Dan Bebber at Oxford University used slime mould to model an effective railway network. In the experiment, cities were represented by porridge oats that were linked to one another as the slime mould grew. “The Ig Nobel awards are great. They are a wonderful vehicle for putting some science into the public domain in a fun and interesting way,” said Fricker.

Management prize
To Alessandro Pluchino and team at the University of Catania for demonstrating mathematically that companies work more efficiently if staff are promoted at random.

Public health prize
Awarded to Manuel Barbeito at the Industrial Health and Safety Office in Maryland for scientific studies that found microbes cling to beards, making more hirsute men a potential laboratory hazard.

Chemistry prize
For research in 2005 that overturned the long-held belief that oil and water do not mix, the prize was awarded to Eric Adams at MIT and others, including researchers at BP.

Economics prize
Awarded jointly to the executives and directors of Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, AIG and Magnetar for “creating and promoting new ways to invest money — ways that maximise financial gain and minimise financial risk for the world economy, or for a portion thereof.” – guardian.co.uk

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