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The Ig Nobels

By Alex Campbell on October 25, 2010 in Other

Have you ever wondered why woodpeckers don’t get headaches? Or whether sword-swallowers suffer any oesophageal side effects? Perhaps you’ve pondered why, in a group photo, someone almost always has their eyes shut? Improbably, some of the best and brightest scientists from all over the world devote many years of their lives to answering just these sorts of questions. Thankfully, they are recognised and celebrated in a hilarious annual prize ceremony – the ‘Ig Nobel’ Awards.

This year, awards went to engineers who developed a new method for collecting whale snot with a helicopter, medical researchers who demonstrated that asthma symptoms can be improved with a ride on a roller coaster, and town planners who used slime moulds to determine the best routes for train tracks in Japan. A couple of Kiwi physicists were awarded for figuring out that wearing socks over the tops of your shoes in icy conditions helps minimise the number of times you’ll slip, fall and injure yourself on ice. For demonstrating that swearing out loud reduces the amount of pain you feel after you’ve hurt yourself, neurologists from the UK were awarded the Ig Nobel Peace Prize. And Italian researchers showed, using mathematical models, that companies and organisations would be more productive if people within the organisation were promoted at random, rather than based on merit.

But perhaps the most improbable research to be awarded at this year’s ceremony received the biology prize. This study showed that fruit bats regularly engage in fellatio (the only animals other than humans and Bonobo chimps to do so). Male fruit bats typically roost with several females in tents made with leaves. Within these harems, swinging far above the ground, the bats engage in fellatio during copulation. The authors of the study argue that this prolongs copulation, the likelihood of fertilisation and thus, reproductive success, which, from the viewpoint of many evolutionary biologists, explains most of the crazy things that people (and most other animals and plants) do.

The natural world is a fierce and largely unknown entity and somewhere, someone is unlocking a secret you never knew you didn’t know the answer to. Those brave soldiers are tackling the big questions like, “Does Viagra help abate the symptoms of jetlag in hamsters?” and “What happens to the electrical activity of a locust brain when a locust watches Star Wars?”

So when you’re lying in bed tonight, rest assured that a scientist somewhere in the world is working hard to understand not only why and how your sheets are becoming crinkled, but also which mites, insects, spiders, pseudoscorpions, crustaceans, bacteria, algae, ferns and fungi are in bed with you. Ig Nobel Laureates, we salute and thank you!

To hear more from Alex and get a weekly fix of scientific, environmental and health-related info, tune in to ‘Boiling Point’ on 89.7 FM Eastside Radio,every Tuesday at 6.00 pm, stream it online at, find her on Facebook or e-mail