As the government prepares to crack down on 'irrelevant' research, we look at some of the things we'll be losing, courtesy of the Ig Nobel awards.
The government has unveiled plans to allocate research funding according to how much “impact” the research has. The plans have come under fire from academics, who say that curiosity-driven, speculative research has led to some of the most important breakthroughs in scientific history, including penicillin, relativity theory and the theory of evolution. More than that, though, it might bring an end to the quirky, sometimes daft, sometimes weirdly inspired research that brings harmless entertainment and occasional enlightenment to armchair boffins and science nerds everywhere. Below, we take a look at a few of the best. We have selected our favourites from the winners of the splendid Ig Nobel Awards
– take a look yourselves. The next award ceremony is in October. Digital rectal massage is a cure for hiccups, winner, Medicine, 2006 "Termination of Intractable Hiccups with Digital Rectal Massage", Annals of Emergency Medicine, August 1988
In our day we used to be told to drink a glass of water backwards. But research now suggests that, for intractable hiccups, a simple finger up the bottom can work wonders. As it can for so many things.
It is not made clear whether or not the treatment should be administered unannounced for greatest effect.
(We mock, but intractable hiccups can be a genuine problem for sufferers, and this treatment may be preferable to the powerful anti-spasmodics and other drugs that are often used.) Chinstrap penguins can squirt poo up to 40cm, winner, Fluid Dynamics, 2005 "Pressures Produced When Penguins Pooh -- Calculations on Avian Defaecation", Polar Biology, 2003
Rather sweetly, the researchers end their conclusions by saying: “Whether the bird deliberately chooses the direction into which it decides to expel its faeces or whether this depends on the direction from which the wind blows at the time of evacuation are questions that need to be addressed on another expedition to Antarctica.” No doubt governments will be falling over themselves to fund that trip. Ducks can be homosexual necrophiliacs too (winner, Biology, 2003) "The First Case of Homosexual Necrophilia in the Mallard Anas platyrhynchos (Aves: Anatidae)", Deinsea: Annual of the Natural History Museum Rotterdam, 2001.
One of the greatest sentences in modern science writing: “Next to the obviously dead duck, another male mallard… mounted the corpse and started to copulate, with great force.” Take that, March Of The Penguins. Suicide rates are linked to the amount of country music played on the radio, winner, Medicine, 2004 "The Effect of Country Music on Suicide", Social Forces, 1992
If you knew there was something profoundly unacceptable about Billy Ray Cyrus, but you could never quite put your finger on what it was, here is your answer. The man makes people kill themselves. Dog fleas can jump higher than cat fleas, winner, Biology, 2008 "A Comparison of Jump Performances of the Dog Flea, Ctenocephalides canis (Curtis, 1826) and the Cat Flea, Ctenocephalides felis felis (Bouche, 1835)," Veterinary Parasitology, 2000
Presumably the research team set up some sort of tiny high-jump bar for the fleas to Fosbury-flop over. It’s not entirely pointless; knowing which that dog fleas jump higher tells you that buying a dog is more likely to lead to getting bitten yourself. Lap dancers get higher tips when they are ovulating, winner, Economics, 2008 "Ovulatory Cycle Effects on Tip Earnings by Lap Dancers: Economic Evidence for Human Estrus?" Evolution and Human Behavior, 2007
This research might be hard to put into practical use – unless you’re a lap dancer – but you imagine the (all male) research team put in an awful lot of field work. Rats can’t always tell the difference between Japanese spoken backwards and Dutch spoken backwards, winner, Linguistics, 2007 "Effects of Backward Speech and Speaker Variability in Language Discrimination by Rats," Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, vol. 31, no. 1, January 2005
The Linguistics Ig Nobel winner in 2007. In fairness to the researchers, they were trying to find similarities between human infants and other mammals, in order to better determine the evolutionary origins of speech. But what they actually did was show the world that rats don’t speak backwards Japanese. A miss, really. You can extract vanilla flavouring from cow dung, winner, Chemistry, 2006 "Novel Production Method for Plant Polyphenol from Livestock Excrement Using Subcritical Water Reaction," International Journal of Chemical Engineering, 2008
Maybe you can, but would you eat it?
(Note: a Massachusetts ice cream parlour introduced a new flavour in honour of this research, which was presented alongside the award. The ice cream was called "Yum-a-Moto Vanilla Twist", after the lead researcher Mayu Yamamoto) Why woodpeckers don’t get headaches – winner, Ornithology, 2006 "Woodpeckers and Head Injury,", Lancet, 1976; "Cure for a Headache," Ivan R Schwab, British Journal of Ophthalmology, 2002
It is pretty baffling, when you think about it. Woodpeckers headbutt trees for a living, experiencing impact deceleration of more than 1000 times the force of gravity. So how do they prevent catastrophic brain injury? The difference between ordinary people and good scientists is that where we just wonder, the scientist finds out.
(The answer, if you were wondering, is: brain more tightly packed into the skull; a smooth brain surface to maximise impact surface area; and minimal side-to-side movement. So there you go.) Malaria mosquitoes are as attracted to limburger cheese as they are to human foot odour – winner, Biology, 2006 "On Human Odour, Malaria Mosquitoes, and Limburger Cheese," The Lancet, 1996
(paper requires log-in)
Next time you go to Africa, don’t bother with insect repellent or mosquito nets – just take a nice ripe limburger, leave it outside your tent, and presto! A bite-free night. (Note to readers: please do bother with insect repellent and mosquito nets.)