The Ig Nobel prizes

This year’s Ig Nobel prizes have been announced, with the science of slippery banana skins and the therapeutic effect of beauty among the winners. The awards, which recognise research that “first makes you laugh, and then makes you think”, were presented in a ceremony at Harvard University in the US.

Scientists from Canada and China won the neuroscience prize. They discovered that the same part of the brain is used when we see illusions of faces – such as images of Jesus on slices of toast – as when we recognise real faces. They showed their volunteers a set of grainy noise images, but told them that 50% contained faces. A third of the time, the volunteers said they saw faces that were not there.

Italian scientists were awarded for showing that beautiful artwork has a pain-relieving effect. The scientists directed laser beams at participants’ hands while they looked at paintings and asked them to rate their pain. When looking at paintings they thought were beautiful, the volunteers said the laser was less painful, and pain responses in their brains were lower.

Marina de Tommaso, leading the study, told New Scientist that aesthetic design should play a greater part in hospital planning. “But at least there is no suggestion that ugly surroundings make the pain worse”, she said.

The physics prize gained the most attention out of all the awards. Its winners were a Japanese team led by Kiyoshi Mabuchi, who tested whether banana skins really are as slippery as they are in cartoons. They found bananas to have a friction coefficient – a measure of grip – of 0.07. This is almost as little friction as a ski sliding over snow.

Mabuchi found that the slipperiness is caused by a unique gel that forms when the skins are crushed. He thinks that such a gel could be used for lubricating artificial joints, his main area of research.

The Ig Nobels, now in their 24th year, award real scientific innovations but also show that scientific research has a lighter side. Other winning research included treating uncontrollable nosebleeds with ‘cured pork tampons’ and dressing up as polar bears to frighten Norwegian reindeer. The more prestigious Nobel prizes will be announced in Sweden next month.



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July 2021
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