If research is the key to human progress, work undertaken by the recipients of the annual Ig Nobel Prize show us why the advancement of civilization lately seems to be unable to overcome inertia.
The winners list for the 30th Annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, held Thursday, included researchers whose experiments showed that knives made from frozen poop don’t work; that the level of income inequality can predict how tightly a nation embraces mouth-to-mouth kissing; and that an alligator inhaling a mixture of helium and oxygen can crank out bellows indicating its body size.
The Ig Nobel ceremony is a good-natured spoof of the Nobel Prize award. It honors scientific achievements “that first make people laugh, and then make them think.”
My favorite prize-winner was the poop knife experiment, which topped the Ig Nobel’s Materials Science category. It was conducted to determine whether there was any truth to an Inuit legend, popularized in the 1988 book “Shadows in the Sun,” by anthropologist Wade Davis, then often repeated elsewhere.
According to the legend, the family of an Inuit man wanted him to abandon his life as a nomadic hunter and move to a settlement. To make the move more attractive, they are said to have taken away the man’s tools and left him with only the clothes on his back, before returning to the settlement to await his arrival. Instead, legend has it that the man fashioned a knife from his own excrement, and after letting it freeze solid overnight, used the stool tool to kill a dog, remove its rib cage to use as a sled, and cut its hide into strips to secure the bony conveyance to another, presumably nervous, dog, before mushing his way into the aurora borealis.
A pair of Kent State anthropologists thought the legend smelled a little ... I’m going to say fishy, and spent eight days pooping into a bag, then molding their scientist scat into knives of varying shapes and sizes before freezing their hand-crafted stank shanks. Finally, they tested their stool tools on pig hides and tendons, producing only brown streaks and no cuts, proving that not all oft-repeated legends are true.
If nothing else, it likely allowed the anthropologists to get accustomed to not shaking hands months before the arrival of COVID-19.
In addition to the prizes listed above, Ig Nobel awards also went to research that showed many entomologists — scientists who study insects — are afraid of spiders, due to the inability to escape childhood fears. Of course, spiders are arachnids, not insects, which maybe gives the arachnophobic entomologists a bye. As the author of the study observed in the subtitle of his work, “two more legs can make a big difference.”
Finally, while President Donald Trump has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, but will probably have to earn a Nobel for breath-holding in order to collect it, he has already been deemed a winner by the Ig Nobel Prize committee.
Along with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the leaders of Belarus, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Brazil, Mexico and India, the U.S. president was cited for using the COVID-19 pandemic “to teach the world that politicians can have a more immediate effect on life and death than scientists and doctors.”
Take that, Barack Obama and Bob Dylan.