The silliest science from the 2022 Ig Nobel Prize awards

Ritual enema ceremony depicted in pottery. The synchronizing heart rates of new lovers. Scorpio constipation. Why the words in your iPhone “Terms of Agreement” are so complicated. Moose crashes.

Research into all of these burning topics and more was honored yesterday at the 2022 Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony. Now in its 32nd year, the good-natured parody of the Nobel prize recognizes the most unique, silly, and downright bizarre research that “first make people laugh and then make them think.” The Annals of Improbable Research gives out the awards less than one month before the real Nobel prizes are awarded in Stockholm, Sweden.

The ceremony is usually held at Harvard University, but has been online since 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Per tradition, actual Nobel laureates handed out the prizes. The winners received a virtually worthless Zimbabwean $10 trillion bill.

And the winners are…

Art History: ancient Mayan enemas

Peter de Smet and Nicholas Hellmuth wrote “A Multidisciplinary Approach to Ritual Enema Scenes on Ancient Maya Pottery” in a 1986 paper, but it withstands the test of time. The paper was adapted from de Smet’s doctoral dissertation and focuses on polychrome pottery of the late classic Mayan period (600–900 CE). Palace scenes, ball games, hunting parties, and dances associated with human sacrifice (via decapitation) are usually painted on this kind of pottery, but 55 years ago, scholars discovered one Maya jar showing the administration of an enema. Other discoveries of fine fecal art followed.

Applied Cardiology: syncing hearts with your crush

Eliska Prochazkova, Elio Sjak-Shie, Friederike Behrens, Daniel Lindh, and Mariska Kret discovered evidence that shows when two new romantic partners meet for the first time and feel attraction, their heart rates synchronize, publishing their findings in November, 2021. Prochazkova said she didn’t have problem finding matches on dating apps, but often didn’t feel that spark when they met in real life. She set people up on blind dates in real social settings and measured their physiological reactions, and found that the heart rates of the pairs with real chemistry synchronized. So, did the team discover “love at first sight”? “It really depends, on how you define love,” Prochazkova, a researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands, said in an email to the Associated Press. “What we found in our research was that people were able to decide whether they want to date their partner very quickly. Within the first two seconds of the date, the participants made a very complex idea about the human sitting in front of them.”

Literature: Terms of Agreement are too tricky

Eric Martínez, Francis Mollica, and Edward Gibson, did what has long needed to be done by analyzing what makes legal documents unnecessarily difficult to understand. Taking a closer look at any Terms of Agreement on a new software or device is enough to make you want to eschew all new technology forever. Martínez, Mollica, and Gibson were frustrated by all of this legal jargon. Their analysis focused on some key psycholinguistic characteristics: nonstandard capitalization (those written out in bold ALL CAPS), the frequency of SAT words (aforesaid, herein, to wit, etc.) that rarely appear in everyday speech, word choice, the use of passive versus active voice, center-embedding, where lawyers embed legal jargon within convoluted syntax. “Ultimately, there’s kind of a hope that lawyers will think a little more with the reader in mind,” Martínez told the AP. “Clarity doesn’t just benefit the layperson, it also benefits lawyers.”

Biology: scorpion constipation

Solimary García-Hernández and Glauco Machado did the grueling work of investigating constipation affects the mating prospects of scorpions. Scorpions are better known for their deadly venom and creepy crawly pincers, not so much for their poop habits. In a process called autonomy, scorpions can detach a body part to escape a predator. However, they also lose the last portion of the digestive tract when they do this. This can lead to a constipation and eventually death and the long term decrease in the, “locomotor performance of autotomized males may impair mate searching,” they wrote.

[Related: Cockatoos are pillaging trashcans in Australia, and humans can’t seem to stop them.]

Medicine: ice cream as cancer therapy

A team of scientists at the University of Warsaw in Poland showed in their 2021 study that when patients undergo some forms of toxic chemotherapy, they suffer fewer harmful side effects when ice cream replaces one traditional component of the procedure. This sweet study looked at cryotherapy, where cancer patients often suck on ice-chips to prevent oral mucositis (which causes sores in the mouth, gums, and tongue, increased mucus and saliva, and difficulty swallowing). But this can become uncomfortable really quickly. This now prize winning study found that only 28.85 percent of patients who used ice cream cryotherapy developed oral mucositis, compared with 59 percent who did not receive the Ben and Jerry’s approved cryotherapy.

Engineering: knob turning technique

Gen Matsuzaki, Kazuo Ohuchi, Masaru Uehara, Yoshiyuki Ueno, and Goro Imura, discovered the most efficient way for people to use their fingers when turning a knob. The 1999 study stressed the importance of a good universal knob design, particularly for, “instruments with rotary control,” particularly in elderly people who might find rotary knobs and faucet handles easier to use than a lever. Subjects in the study were asked to turn a series of different sized knobs clockwise with their right hand. They found that the forefingers and thumb were used most frequently and extra fingers were used as the knobs became wider.

Physics: keeping your ducks in a row

Frank Fish, Zhi-Ming Yuan, Minglu Chen, Laibing Jia, Chunyan Ji, and Atilla Incecik, dove into the world of understanding how ducklings manage to swim in formation. Getting your ducks in a row appears to be all about energy conservation. They found that the ducklings instinctively tended to “ride the waves,” generated by the mother duck to significantly reduce drag. They then use a technique called drafting, like cyclists and runners do in a race to reduce drag. “It all has to do with the flow that occurs behind that leading organism and the way that moving in formation can actually be an energetic benefit,” Fish told the AP.

Related: 8 animals being naturally hilarious.]

Peace: the gossip conundrum

An international group of scientists ranging from Beijing to Ontario developed an algorithm to help gossipers decide when to tell the truth and when to lie. Essentially, their work can help determine when people are more likely to be honest or dishonest in their gossip, drawing on models of behavior signaling theory. “Signals are adaptations shaped by marginal costs and marginal benefits of different behaviors, and the ultimate function of the signaler’s behavior is to maximize their fitness,” wrote the authors. The gossiper may be willing to pay some personal cost (being labeled a gossip or losing trust) to provide a benefit to the receiver. That’s because the gossip could gain a secondary benefit as a result of the receiver gaining juicy new information.

Economics: it pays to be lucky

Alessandro Pluchino, Alessio Emanuele Biondo, and Andrea Rapisarda, used math to explain why success most often goes not to the most talented people but instead to the luckiest. The 2018 paper noted that the qualities most often associated as leading to success follow a normal Gaussian distribution around a mean. For example, the average IQ is 100, but nobody boasts an IQ of 1,000 or 10,000. “The same holds for efforts, as measured by hours worked,” the authors wrote. “Someone works more hours than the average and someone less, but nobody works a billion times more hours than anybody else.” However, the distribution of wealth follows a power law, where there are significantly more poor people than the few hugely wealthy billionaires. The study suggests simple, random luck is the missing ingredient based on the agent-based model the authors developed.

Safety Engineering: moose tracks

Magnus Gens developed a moose crash test dummy, and shockingly it is actually useful information. Sweden’s highways are the scene of frequent collisions between the large mammals and cars, which can result in injury or death to both the moose and humans. This crash test dummy will allow car manufacturers to use animal crashes in their safety testing. Gens tested the dummy at the Saab facility using one modern Saab and one old Volvo traveling at about 45 mph and a second Saab at 57 mph. Fortunately for car makers, the dummy is robust and able to be reused in multiple crash tests before it needs to be replaced.

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