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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Column: Confessions of a nerd

I’ve got a secret habit. It seems natural – healthy even – but I’m still embarrassed when I get caught. Of course, discretion is tough when the evidence is in my Internet search history.

So here it is, my secret: I love tracking down bizarre scientific studies.

I don’t mean some flashy science about the latest dinosaur fossil. No. I love studies about stuff like protein analysis in the saliva of different aphid species (Journal of Environmental Entomology).

These papers are so random, so weird, so … fantastic.

Anyone who asks questions like “How do albino fish hear?” (Journal of Zoology) is someone I want to meet. Sadly, this misfit science never makes into everyday news. The writing is too technical, the discoveries too bizarre.

That’s why I was so excited when I heard about the “Ig Nobel Prizes.”

The Ig Nobel Prizes are given out at Harvard University every year by a magazine called The Annals of Improbable Research. According to ceremony organizers, “The Ig Nobel Prizes honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.” Their name is a play on the word “Ignoble,” which means something not noble or honorable.

These awards are not affiliated with the annual Nobel Prizes, but Ig Nobel winners still proudly fly in from around the world to accept their awards. Researchers who win Ig Nobel Prizes aren’t going to cure cancer, but they are great examples of curiosity and creativity.

Here are my favorites from last year’s ceremony:

Engineering Prize – using a remote-control helicopter to collect snot from sick whales. The research was conducted by researchers from the Zoological Society of London and the Instituto Politecnico Nacional in Mexico. According to the study, published by the journal Animal Conservation, the team was able to collect 22 “Blow samples” from eight species of whales.

Medical Prize – curing asthma with a rollercoaster ride. Two scientists from the Netherlands wanted to see if “Positive emotional stress” could help with shortness of breath caused by severe asthma.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers sent 25 female subjects on multiple rollercoaster rides. According to the data, published in the the Journal of Behaviour Research and Therapy, “Dyspnea [shortness of breath] in women with asthma was higher just before than immediately after rollercoaster rides.”

Biology Prize – a team of biologists from the UK and China discovered that fruit bats really like oral sex. Female bats routinely lick the base and shaft of the male’s penis during penetration, which may increase copulation time and increase fertilization rates.

“The behavior presumably favors the donor, although it may also benefit both partners especially if fertilization success is increased,” wrote the scientists in their report. “It is conceivable that the female manipulates the male by increasing sexual stimulation, so that she ultimately benefits.”

(Just don’t tell the male bats that.)

But my all-time favorite prize last year went to Lianne Parkin, Sheila Williams and Patricia Priest of the University of Otago, New Zealand. Their research proved that people can avoid slipping on icy sidewalks by wearing socks on the outside of their shoes.

The scientists wanted to investigate anecdotal evidence that snuggly-fitting socks worn outside shoes give enough traction to prevent falls. To test the theory, they had to randomly choose volunteers.

“We therefore decided to adopt a pragmatic approach and intercept passing pedestrians,” they wrote in their paper, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal. “It was decided that persons already wearing socks over their shoes would not be eligible.”

According to their data, 71 percent of the socked group reported feeling confident walking on ice, compared to 53 percent in the non-socked control group. One participant told the researchers they should “recommend socks for hung-over people.” The only “adverse effect” reported was “embarrassment for the image-conscious in the intervention group.”

I like the Ig Nobel Prizes because they connect real research with plain old fun. Isn’t that the best reason to become a scientist? I know that’s why I became a science writer.

So for the next 10 weeks of this column be warned: I am a nerd.

Prepare to point and laugh.

MADELINE McCURRY-SCHMIDT welcomes e-mails about anything except fruit bat fellatio. She can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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