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When research is funny


Posted by on Sunday, February 19, 2012



You may recall Troy Hurtubise, the man behind the full-body armour suit designed to withstand grizzly bear attacks. The Ontario native figures in TV shows and a National Film Board documentary, and is the author of Bear Man, The Troy Hurtubise Saga


He won an Ig Nobel prize for Safety Engineering (that’s him in the video) in 1998. 

Then there's Steve Penfold, the York University graduate student — now a professor at the University of Toronto — who won an Ig Nobel the following year for his research on how doughnuts have shaped Canadian rural communities.

Ig Nobels are, in their creator Marc Abrahams’s words, intended to recognize research that first makes people laugh, and then think.

Abrahams took on the role of editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, a science humour magazine, in 1990 and awarded the first Ig Nobels the following year. Every year since, he and his colleagues and friends award 10 prizes, paying tribute to unconventional research. Canadians have won plenty.

“There are a few countries that have a deep thread of appreciation for this way of looking at life. Canada is one of them,” says Abrahams during a coffee break at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Vancouver this weekend.

The Ig Nobels don’t ridicule research; they highlight questions and methodologies that may seem frivolous at the surface, but subtly introduce new perspectives or answer long-unanswered questions (an exception, of course, being Troy Hurtubise’s grizzly suit). 

Here’s Canada’s contribution to ridiculous research (this list is not comprehensive; for more, visit www.improbable.com/ig/winners): 

Beetles and bottles 

In 2011, Darryl Gwynne of the University of Toronto was among the team of who won the Ig Nobel Prize for Biology for their work on beetles that mistook certain beer bottles for females of their own species. 

The abstract says it all: "Male Julodimorpha bakewelli White were observed attempting to copulate with beer bottles. Colour and reflection of tubercles on the bottle glass are suggested as causes for attraction and release of sexual behaviour." 

Tadpole tasting  

Richard Wassersug, a professor of anatomy and neurobiology at Dalhousie University, won the Ig Nobel Prize for Biology in 2000 for a study entitled, “On the comparative palatability of some dry-season tadpoles from Costa Rica,” published in the journal American Midland Naturalist in 1971. 

The research was intended to find out what tadpoles, which range from bland to brightly coloured and patterned, taste like to predators. Most biologists had always assumed that the more conspicuous tadpoles weren’t wiped out by their predators because they likely tasted worse than the bland ones. Wassersug decided to test that theory.

He gathered graduate students for a tadpole sampling session as elaborate and sophisticated as any wine tasting ceremony.


Here’s an excerpt of the tadpole tasting report (read more in Abrahams’s piece in The Guardian): 

A tadpole was rinsed in fresh water. The taster placed the tadpole in his or her mouth, and held it for 10-20 seconds without biting into it. Then the taster bit into the tail, breaking the skin, and chewed lightly for 10-20 seconds. For the last 10-20 seconds the taster bit firmly and fully into the body of the tadpole. The participants were directed not to swallow the tadpoles but to spit them out and to rinse their mouths out at least twice with fresh water before proceeding to the next tadpole.

Gassy and chatty 

Lawrence Dill of Simon Fraser University was among the researchers who found that herring produce “chirps” through their anal opening — yes, that means they fart — when they’re scared. 

According to the abstract, “the pulsed chirp is not known to be produced by any other marine animal.”

The team won an Ig Nobel Prize for Biology in 2004. 


Don’t try this at home  

John Senders’s work got little attention when he published it back in the 1960s. At the time, few were interested in the effects of driving with a helmet whose visor continuously flapped down to shield the driver — John Senders himself — causing him to rely on his visual memory to avoid crashing. The University of Toronto professor won the Ig Nobel Prize for Public Safety in 2011.

Today, anyone researching distracted driving should take a look at his work:

 




  Comments (1)

I have been an IgNoble fan as well as a fan of the Annals of Improbable reserch for years. I think being able to laugh at oneself is a Canadian trait.

Submitted by Birta on Monday, February 20, 2012

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