Can you smell flies?
Apparently, flies do have scents, and people can smell them. Well, at least the scents of a particular female fly, according to research that was conducted and published, all, it seems, to prove that a fly that falls into wine can ruin the drink because it leaves an odor.
That journal article won its authors the Ig Nobel Prize this year for biology. The awards, which have been given out annually since 1995, have attracted the attention of media all over the world, for the importance (or lack thereof) of “improbable research,” which is defined simply and not so elegantly as “research that makes you laugh… and think.”
The awards, including the ceremonies and procedures, certainly make people laugh. Winners, for example, have to pay for their own transportation to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to pick up the award in a theater in Harvard and to do a public lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Awardees are promised at least a handshake from real Nobel Prize laureates and entertained by a mini science opera.
I looked up the journal articles that won the prizes and was, to say the least, entertained. Here they are:
The medicine prize went to a team that looked into the possibility of using roller-coaster rides to hasten the passage of kidney stones. No, they didn’t use actual humans but a model of the urinary system, with urine and stones. Researchers rode roller coasters in Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Yes, the rides do help, and the researchers observed that the rear seats seem to be more effective.
The anthropology prize went to a multinational team that collected evidence that chimpanzees, in zoos, tend to imitate humans more than the reverse situation.
The biology prize went to that research on the scent of flies, and how they can ruin wines. (I thought, too, of the “fly in the ointment” mentioned in Ecclesiastes as leaving a rotten smell, but that involved dead flies landing on olden pharmacists preparing medicines.)
The chemistry prize went to a team looking at human saliva as a cleaning agent for dirty surfaces. (Grrr… I couldn’t access the entire article, and the abstract only describes the research procedure, which didn’t use saliva itself. I owe readers on this one.)
The medical education prize went to self-sacrificing research: Two Japanese researchers looked into colonoscopy (inserting a tube to check the colon) in the sitting position… by performing the procedure on themselves.
Although a science organization, the Ig Nobel people did have a literature prize, which this year went to research showing that people who use the most complicated products tend not to read the instruction manual.
The nutrition prize went to a researcher who calculated caloric intake in a human-cannibalism diet, and found there were fewer calories in it than in traditional animal meat diets. No, he did not actually prepare a human meal, but just calculated potential calories and, from the findings, concluded that cannibalism was probably done less for nutrition than for social and cultural reasons.
The peace prize should be of interest to us in the Philippines: shouting and cursing while driving among Spanish drivers. Research found that the verbally abusive behavior was associated with stress, fatigue and personality traits. Yes, I was thinking, too: Why not research on cursing among politicians?
The reproductive medicine prize went into research that used postage stamps to test if the penis was functioning properly. Yes, you read right. It’s a simple procedure: You wrap stamps around the organ of interest before sleeping and check it out the next morning. If the stamps had torn apart, then “penile tumescence” was functioning. I was somewhat disappointed by the choice because it’s very old research, published in 1980. These days, do our young people even know what postage stamps are?
The economics prize should again interest Filipinos: an investigation into employees retaliating on abusive supervisors by using a voodoo doll. No, they couldn’t check if voodoo actually worked, but they found that abused employees did have a sense of achieving justice using the dolls, with benefits not just for the employee but also for the organization (because it restores well-being!). I thought it would be a good research to replicate locally, except we’d look at people who go to Quiapo and burn one of those black candles shaped as humans.
On Friday, I’ll give you more information about the organization behind the awards, and why “improbable research” does matter.
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