Ig Nobel Prizes reward research on helium-huffing alligators and knives made of feces

A study that placed Chinese alligators (Alligator sinensis) in helium chambers revealed mechanisms of their vocalizations and earned the authors a 2020 Ig Nobel Prize.

Gregory G. Dimijian/Science Source

The Ig Nobel Prizes, an annual event celebrating quirky, comical discoveries, carried on despite the pandemic in a virtual ceremony riddled with bugs—and bug jokes. The Annals of Improbable Research, the science humor magazine that hosts the event, selected bugs as the theme for the 30th annual event, although the winning studies spanned an array of icky, wondrous, and unconventional research. The ceremony took place entirely online for the first time with a series of prerecorded speeches, musical numbers, and lightning-speed lectures.

This years prize in entomology went to an investigation of why so many insect researchers are themselves fearful of spiders. The survey of arachnophobic entomologists, published in 2013 in American Entomologist, explored why people who devoted their careers to critters such as cockroaches and maggots still found spiders unnerving. Among spiders’ most disliked traits were their fast, unpredictable movements and their many legs.

The acoustics prize went to researchers who recreated in reptiles the party trick of inhaling helium from balloons. To study crocodilian vocalizations, the team placed alligators in an airtight, helium-filled chamber and found that the high-energy frequency bands of their bellows got even higher. The results, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology in 2015, are the first evidence that nonavian reptiles produce sound from vibrations in the vocal tract, known as formants.

A duo of researchers earned the prize in psychology for discovering that distinctive eyebrows are perceived as a cue of “grandiose narcissism.” By showing people photos of faces with different areas concealed, the researchers found eyebrows were an especially important nonverbal cue for gauging narcissistic personality traits, they reported in the Journal of Personality in 2018. Study participants judged eyebrow distinctiveness—the eyebrows’ thickness and density—to be the most telling sign of narcissism.

Other winning research included a study revealing new diagnostic criteria for a psychiatric disorder called misophonia, which makes people averse to certain breathing and eating sounds; evidence that romantic partners in countries with higher levels of economic inequality kiss more often; and the finding that knives cannot be crafted from frozen human feces, despite a previous account of an Inuit man doing so.

Winners received a $10 trillion Zimbabwean bill, equivalent to a few U.S. cents, and were emailed a six-page PDF to print and assemble into a cube-shaped trophy. The awards were presented by past Nobel laureates Eric Maskin (Economics, 2007), Frances Arnold (Chemistry, 2018), Richard Roberts (Physiology or Medicine, 1993), Martin Chalfie (Chemistry, 2008), Jerome Friedman (Physics, 1990), and Andre Geim (Physics, 2010).

The ceremony also featured the debut performance of Dream, Little Cockroach, a miniopera performed by the Nobel laureates alongside professional singers and other musically inclined scientists. In past years, the live audience has folded pages from the program into airplanes to toss onto the stage; this year, viewers were encouraged to make and toss their own planes at home. Host Marc Abrahams closed the ceremony with a classic Ig Nobel line: “If you didn’t win an Ig Nobel Prize tonight—and especially if you did—better luck next year.”


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