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Ig Nobel awards? Real scientific research at its goofiest

By Karen Kaplan
Los Angeles Times
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Let’s face it: The Nobel Prizes aren’t for everyone. That’s why we celebrate the annual Ig Nobel Prizes, which were handed out recently at Harvard’s Sanders Theater.

Among this year’s winners were scientists who discovered that alcohol makes people think they’re attractive and that the longer a cow has been lying down, the more likely she is to stand up.

These awards are handed out by the folks who publish the Annals of Improbable Research. Though the discoveries they recognize can seem obvious, inconsequential or just plain goofy, the awards do have a purpose: To “honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.”

Among the achievements that earned the 2013 Ig Nobels:

The Medicine Prize was awarded to a group of Japanese researchers who determined that mice who got heart transplants survived longer if opera music or Mozart was playing in the background during their surgeries, compared with mice who went under the knife to Enya or to a single-frequency tone. The beneficial music seemed to stimulate production of helpful immune system cells. Their results were published in the Journal of Cardiothoracic Surgery.

The Psychology Prize went to European researchers who figured out that beer goggles can be trained on oneself. This team conducted two experiments that found that the more alcohol a person consumed, the more highly they rated themselves for attractiveness, intelligence and cleverness. Their study appeared in the British Journal of Psychology.

The unusual Joint Prize in Biology and Astronomy recognized vision scientists who tested the ability of dung beetles to roll their balls of manure under clear and cloudy nighttime skies. Their findings, published in the journal Current Biology, demonstrated that the insects use the Milky Way to navigate.

The Physics Prize was handed out to a European team that wondered whether it would be possible for people to walk on water – actually, to run across the surface of a hypothetical pond – under the low-gravity conditions that exist on the moon. Their calculations revealed that the answer is yes. You can read the report from PLOS ONE.

On the mathematics front, the Probability Prize went to researchers at the Scottish Agricultural College in Edinburgh who wanted to get a better understanding of what made cows decide when to lie down and when to stand up.

The question isn’t entirely trivial: A cow’s posture can indicate whether she is in heat or has a health problem. After observing nearly 11,000 “lying episodes,” they determined that the longer a cow has been lying down, the sooner she will stand up. However, they were surprised to discover that the reverse was not true. Their report was published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

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