Friday, September 26, 2014

More "Pointless" Research: the 2014 Ig Nobel Award Winners!

In August, I wrote about so-called pointless research and an organization that celebrates this research that makes you laugh, then makes you think.  Well, the 2014 winners of the Ig Nobel awards have been announced!  We've got people studying the physics behind slipping on a banana peel, the neuroscience of seeing faces in mundane items, the psychopathy of being a night owl, the dangers of being a cat lady, dogs facing their own mecca when they poop, a tasty way to treat nosebleeds, reindeer don't trust people dressed as animals either, and a fairly gross way to produce starter probiotic cultures for sausage-making (it may put you off sausages from now on).  Let's explore these interesting, improbable, and yes "pointless" findings!

Physics Prize - Frictional Coefficient under Banana Skin (Open Access)
Call this a comedy kill-joy, but these researchers wanted to find out the actual scientific truth behind the old slipping on a banana peel slapstick sketch.  They measured the amount of friction between a shoe and a banana skin, and between the banana skin and the floor, and then when a person steps on a banana skin on the floor.  Turns out, the frictional coefficient of a banana peel is actually lower than that of skis going down a slope.  Plus, stepping on the banana peel breaks down the cells, creating a follicular gel made of polysaccharides and some proteins.  This is what lowers the friction coefficient, making it possible to slip on a banana peel.

Pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon that allows people to see faces, or other significant objects, in a vague and random stimulus.  Examples of this include the man in the moon, the Face on Mars, and hearing hidden messages in recordings.  These researchers compared the behavioral and neural responses face pareidolia to letter pareidolia.  Participants were shown pure-noise images, and told that 50% of them contained either faces or letters.  The right fusiform face area (rFFA), a part of the brain responsible for facial recognition, showed a response when people "saw" faces.  The researchers concluded that the rFFA is not only used in the processing real faces, but also in illusory face perception.  That means that human face processing has a strong top-down component, where even just the suggestion of a face is interpreted as a face.  This makes evolutionary sense - our evolution as a highly social species meant we needed to be really good at recognizing faces.

Ok, this title sounds a bit like a cheap B horror movie.  The "dark triad" is basically jargon for narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.  And a chronotype refers the the time during the day (or night) when a person's physical functions (hormone levels, body temperature, cognitive faculties, eating, sleeping, etc.) are most active.  It is often described in terms of people's sleep patterns (night owl vs. morning lark).  The researchers amassed evidence showing that people who habitually stay up late are, on average, more narcissistic, more manipulative, and more psychopathic, than early risers.  It's unclear whether or not internet use (and therefore social media use) was related to this phenomenon, but I imagine that this trend may have something to do with the isolation that comes with being a night owl.  Fewer people to interact with, other than people on the internet, may be one factor contributing to this narcissism and psychopathy (characterized by a lack of empathy, and antisocial and disinhibited behavior).  This might be an interesting future direction for this study.

Public Health Prize - there were three papers cited along with this.
These researchers looked at the public health implications, specifically the mental hazards, of cat ownership.  That is, the effects of toxoplasmosis (the cat poop parasite) on mental health.  In 1999, they looked at the personalities of women with latent toxoplasmosis and found that these young women had higher levels of intelligence and were less likely to feel guilt.  In 2003, they found that young men with toxoplasmosis scored lower in intelligence and had a lower probability of achieving higher education than men who were toxoplasmosis-negative.  They also found a potential link between toxoplasmosis and schizophrenia.  And finally, last year they reported that depression was more likely in people with cat bites compared to people with dog bites (41.3% vs. 28.7%).  The relationship between cat bites and depression was also more likely to occur in women than in men.  This is not a causation, but the researchers point to amassing evidence that cat ownership seems to affect human mental health.

Apparently, a lot of animals like to align themselves with the Earth's magnetic field to defecate, and dogs are no different.  Dogs like to align themselves on a north-south axis under calm magnetic field conditions, but this behavior was lost under unstable magnetic field conditions.  You might think this doesn't mean anything, but it turns out that the magnetic field is only calm for about 20% of the day - and that's around 6:00 pm.  The authors warn other researchers studying magnetoreception in mammals that they may need to account for the stability of the Earth's magnetic field to explain inconsistent behavior.  So this research may seem silly, but this research does have implications for other biological fields.  Huh.

Well this one is a bit self-explanatory.  Packing your nose with pork can stop uncontrollable nose bleeds.  Glanzmann thrombasthenia, a disorder of platelet function that can result in life-threatening bleeding - especially from the nose.  Apparently, a 14 year old child suffering from this disorder experienced a life-threatening nosebleed, and packed his nose with what he had on hand - cured pork.  The salted cured pork worked pretty well, his nose bleeds stopped within 24 hours.

Bear Skin - Barra Still 3
I found this while googling - I have no idea if this is
actually what their bear suit looked like.  Source.
During their field work, the researchers saw that there was a fair bit of interaction between Svalbard reindeer and polar bears.  They measured how long it took for the reindeer to respond to the polar bears, and devised a way that they could compare this to the reindeer response to humans.  It turns out that the reindeer responded faster to humans dressed as polar bears than to humans dressed as humans.  No mention of whether the reindeer could tell the humans in the sketchy fuzzy outfits were not really polar bears.

This only comes as a surprise if you don't know that probiotic starter cultures, like the ones used in probiotic yogurts, are isolated from fecal matter.  Infant fecal matter was isolated, and Lactobacillus was found to be the most common form of bacteria - this makes sense, since these babies are likely primarily or exclusively consuming milk.  After isolating these bacteria, the researchers used them as starter cultures for fermented sausages, and found that the bacteria had the same antagonistic activity against foodborne pathogens, the same rate of survival from gastrointestinal tract conditions, tyramine production, antibiotic susceptibility, and aggregation capacity.  So basically, the bacteria in baby fecal matter is just as effective as a probiotic starter culture as anything else we've been using.  I know I'll be able to sleep better now that I know that.

This year's Ig Nobel awards were presented by the Nobel Laureates Carol Greider, Eric Maskin, Rich Roberts, and Frank Wilczek.  It's always nice to see big-shot scientists celebrate what people would call "pointless" research.  You can watch the video of the ceremony here.

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