Sunday, September 17, 2017

Drum Roll Please.....

Today's post is going to be long, because it's about my favorite annual nerd event: the awarding of the Ig Nobel Prizes.  This annual prize honors the ridiculous, absurd, and hilarious findings of the past year.  Improbable Research, which gives out the award, describes their goal as making people laugh as well as think, and "raising the question [of] How do you decide what's important and what's not, and what's real and what's not".  The Ig Nobel prizes were given out on September 14 at Harvard's Sanders Theater by actual Nobel laureates- because why be brilliant if you can't also have fun?  I highly recommend watching the webcasts of their ceremonies- there's an opera, paper airplanes, 24 second technical lectures with 7 word lay explanations, and at the end of the evening, the traditional disappearance of the audience.  I have taken the liberty of reading all of the winning papers to report on them for your intellectual benefit.

Before we get into that, because it's not an award ceremony without opening remarks, please follow Reviewer Three on Facebook to get notified about all my recent posts and on Twitter to learn fun science things.  My goal is to get 100 Twitter followers by the end of the month, so please spread the word! And, as always, I love seeing my view count creep up as I obsessively refresh the page, so feel free to share my stuff and help make me a big-time blogger.  And now, on with the awards!

PHYSICS: "On the Rheology of Cats," Marc-Antoine Fardin1
Rheology is the branch of physics that deals with the flow of matter.  Cats are notoriously flowy, as Figure 1 in the paper demonstrates.
The author uses the Deborah number, a measure of the fluidity of matter determined by a relaxation time value representing how long it takes a substance to adjust to applied stress divided by the time of the experiment.  Using the Deborah number, it was determined that, as in (a) above, sometimes cats qualify as a solid, and sometimes, as in (b)-(d), cats are a liquid.  One of the limitations of the approach as detailed in the paper is that all of the research subjects were kittens, and older cats may have different relaxation times.  Response to applied stresses was determined in a number of different scenarios.
The author also points out that it must be noted that cats are not isolated fluid systems, because they can transfer and absorb stresses from their environment, as demonstrated by cat cafes where you can pet cats to relieve stress.

PEACE: "Didgeridoo Playing as Alternative Treatment for Obstructive Sleep Apnoea Syndrome: Randomised Controlled Trial," Milo A. Puhan, Alex Suarez, Christian Lo Cascio, Alfred Zahn, Markus Heitz and Otto Braendli2
After a didgeridoo instructor with sleep apnea reported decreased daytime sleepiness after jam sessions on the Australian aboriginal instrument, science was born.  If you are unfamiliar with the didgeridoo, here's a video of someone playing one.  Twenty-five patients with moderate sleep apnea were randomized into a didgeridoo lesson group or a control group who swore not to start taking didgeridoo lessons for the duration of the study, which I can only assume was quite the sacrifice.  The didgeridoo group practiced for at least 20 minutes, five days a week, for four months.  The intervention group improved significantly in daytime sleepiness as compared to the control group, as well as improvements in the sleep quality of partners who shared a bed with the apnea patient, as well as improvements in apnea episodes recorded in the course of a sleep study.  The improvements were slightly less than when patients are treated with CPAP machines, though CPAP treatment is typically prescribed in more severe cases.  For those who are interested, didgeridoos can be purchased for ridiculously cheap on Amazon.

ECONOMICS: "Never Smile at a Crocodile: Betting on Electronic Gaming Machines is Intensified by Reptile-Induced Arousal," Matthew J. Rockloff and Nancy Greer3
The idea behind this study is that previous research has suggested that if someone is highly aroused or excited before gambling, they will often gamble longer or with larger amounts.  If the person is a pathological gambler, however, being highly aroused actually moderates gambling behavior.  Studies unrelated to gambling have demonstrated that people are apt to misinterpret positive or negative feelings when being highly aroused to an unrelated stimulus, so the researchers hypothesized that if people are exposed to a high arousal, negative valence situation, they may associate that feeling with the gambling, causing them to place smaller bets as they feel unlucky.  It logically follows that the ultimate way to test this is by exposing people to live crocodiles. So that's what they did.  Tourists visiting a crocodile farm in Australia were recruited to participate in an electronic gambling task.  They either performed the task when they first arrived at the farm, or after an hour long tour where they had the opportunity to hold a one meter juvenile crocodile. The crocodile's mouth was taped shut, but "tourists were cautioned that it could still harm them due its sharp claws and protruding teeth."  For participants who had no gambling problems, the crocodile group placed smaller bets than the control group, regardless of the intensity of negative affect.  For participants with gambling problems, however, the crocodile group placed smaller bets than controls if they were high in negative affect, but placed larger bets than controls if they were low in negative affect.  The take away for the researchers was that low intensity negative moods or high arousal non-negative moods contribute to large bets for at-risk gamblers.  The take away for me was that casinos probably shouldn't use crocodile tanks as decoration.

ANATOMY: "Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?" James A. Heathcote4
In this classic study from 1995, four British doctors asked all of their patients who came in if they could measure their ears. The age range of patients was 30-93, and after the data were entered into a computer (a point the paper is clear to make), it was discovered that, indeed, ear length correlates with age.  It appears that ears grow at an average rate of 0.22 millimeters per year.  I take great issue with the presentation of the Ig Nobel to this study, as it is a completely misnamed and misleading title.  The paper itself states that "Why ears should get bigger when the rest of the body stops growing is not answered by this research."  It also included women, therefore actually emphasizing that old PEOPLE have big ears.

BIOLOGY:  "Female Penis, Male Vagina and Their Correlated Evolution in a Cave Insect," Kazunori Yoshizawa, Rodrigo L. Ferreira, Yoshitaka Kamimura, Charles Lienhard5
Let me begin by saying the graphical abstract for this paper is absolutely horrifying.  I couldn't tell what was where and who was what and why there was something that looked so much like a scrotum on my screen.  I've included the picture for your viewing pleasure.
On the very off chance that that doesn't tell you everything you need to understand this paper, I'll go into more depth.  In Brazilian caves, there is a genus of barklice called Neotrogla, that consists of four species.  The defining feature of this genus is that they have reversed sex roles that accompany reversed sex organs.  Namely, females have an erectile structure that protrudes from the body, accompanied by a second structure that stores sperm.  The males, on the other hand, have simple arc genitals that don't have any type of protruding organ. The female gynosome penetrates the phallosome in order to receive "voluminous spermatophores" from the male.  Once inserted into the male, a membrane inflates to hold it in place with help from a whole bunch of spines.  If you try to separate two insects during the act of copulation, you will only succeed in ripping the male's abdomen from his body, as it is so firmly anchored to the gynosome, so that's pretty awful. It is suggested that this unique arrangement may have arisen from females competing for, I kid you not, this is how it's worded, "nutritious seminal gifts" (objectively the worst Hanukkah present), which increase the female mating rate. In this situation, the gynosome "may have a premating function grasping reluctant mates or a postmating function holding mates to ensure prolonged copulation".  And with that, I don't want to have to read about insect sex again for a long, long time. 

FLUID DYNAMICS:  "A Study on the Coffee Spilling Phenomena in the Low Impulse Regime," Jiwon Han6
First, I'd like to note that the author of this paper was a high school student at the time he wrote the paper, and that this makes me feel bad about myself. I don't think anyone could explain the impetus for this study better than young Jiwon himself, so to quote: " Rarely do we manage to carry coffee around without spilling it once. In fact, due to the very commonness of the phenomenon, we tend to dismiss questioning it beyond simply exclaiming: “Jenkins! You have too much coffee in your cup!”"
Thus, this paper sought to determine why we spill coffee when we walk, and the best way to avoid this universal phenomenon.  A material's resonant frequency is the vibration frequency where you get the most amplification of oscillations, basically allowing for small forces to have big responses.  In the 1940s, this phenomenon led to the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, when the wind caused it to vibrate at its resonant frequency to huge disaster.  Check out a video of the bridge to get a better idea of the effect of resonance.  In this study, researchers determined that the resonant frequency of coffee in a coffee cup just so happens to be right around the same frequency of vibrations from normal walking.  In other words, our normal gait makes the coffee slosh around with even more amplitude than it should, leading to spills.  They went on to explore what we can change about how we carry coffee that will reduce spillage.  Walking backwards did change the frequency from human movement enough that it was no longer the same as the resonant frequency of the coffee, however did not necessarily reduce spillage due to increased likelihood of tripping or "crashing into a passing by colleague who may also be walking backwards".  The more effective method was to use what they call the "claw-hand method" to hold the cup.
This also changed the vibration frequency from walking due to the way it transfers vibrations to the cup.  I would assume, however, that your coffee has to be below a certain temperature for this to work, given that the steam on your palm could make carrying your cup this way uncomfortable, but that's research for a future Ig Nobel.

NUTRITION:  "What is for Dinner? First Report of Human Blood in the Diet of the Hairy-Legged Vampire Bat Diphylla ecaudata," Fernanda Ito, Enrico Bernard, and Rodrigo A. Torres7
Vampire bats' name derives from the fact that their food source is other animals' blood.  They are extraordinarily specialized for this, with teeth designed to puncture vascular areas, saliva that contains anti-coagulation compounds, and organs that efficiently process out water and urea.  They also can't store fat, and therefore can't go more than two days without eating.  Two of the species of vampire bats have some variety in the type of animals they feed from, while the third species, the hairy-legged vampire bat, only preys on birds. This is a problem, because if they live in areas that have been disrupted by humans, their options for food sources decrease dramatically.  In this paper, group of researchers found that the hairy-legged vampire bat solved this problem by simply feeding on the humans.  The researchers collected bat fecal samples from an area in Brazil that had around 1,000 families currently living in it.  In these fecal samples, they found DNA from both chickens and humans, suggesting that when birds are not available, the hairy-legged vampire bat is able to (rather vindictively) expand its diet.  Previously, bats in captivity had been shown to starve themselves to death rather than eating pig or goat blood, so this was an unexpected discovery.  It is possible that they're not actually feeding on humans, rather on animals that are in close contact with humans, but it still points the way to more work regarding the public health consequences of bats preying on humans, as well as horror movies.

MEDICINE: "The Neural Bases of Disgust for Cheese: An fMRI Study," Jean-Pierre Royet, David Meunier, Nicolas Torquet, Anne-Marie Mouly and Tao Jiang8
A group of French researchers needed to determine what percentage of the French population is disgusted by cheese, and what that looks like in the brain.  They found that 38 out of the 332 subject s (11.5%) were objectively wrong and were disgusted by cheese.  Cheese also represented 36.9% of all of the "disgusted" answers, higher than any other category of food.  However, they also found that the majority of people rated desserts as below a 6 on a ten point scale, and almost no one claimed to be disgusted by vegetables, so I have some doubts as to the accuracy of these responses.  They found differences in "liking" and "wanting" ratings for pro- and anti-cheese people when provided with a cheese odor and a picture of cheese, as well as a significant difference in liking and wanting ratings for anti-cheese people when they were just smelling cheese as opposed to smelling and looking at cheese.  When smelling and looking at cheese, they found differences in activation in the globus pallidus, substanatia nigra, and ventral pallidum between pro- and anti-cheese people.  Basically, people who are disgusted by cheese aren't motivated by cheese, and areas that code reward also likely code disgust, at least when it comes to cheese.  (Fun personal note: I'm writing this piece on a weekend where I consumed at least half a pound of cheese.)  

COGNITION: "Is That Me or My Twin? Lack of Self-Face Recognition Advantage in Identical Twins," Matteo Martini, Ilaria Bufalari, Maria Antonietta Stazi, Salvatore Maria Aglioti9
As humans, we are very good at looking at human faces.  We're even better at looking at our own faces.  We recognize ourselves more quickly than other people, we pay attention to our own face longer, we use feature information more for our faces than others, and even in cases of prospopagnosia (face blindness), it's very rare for someone not to be able to recognize their own face. Researchers here recruited twin pairs and their friend, and showed all three faces to each set of three, asking them to identify who each face belonged to.  This is a great way to realize your friend can't tell you and your sister apart. Twins were equally good at recognizing them and their twin in terms of reaction time and accuracy, but were worse at recognizing themselves (and their co-twin) than controls were at recognizing themselves.  This result depended on how much twins were reported to look like each other, which indicates that it's more about them not being able to tell themselves apart than any kind of seeing themselves as a single unit phenomenon.  It is important to note that no twin will ever be able to give you a hard time if you can't tell them apart, because they can't either.

OBSTETRICS: "Fetal Facial Expression in Response to Intravaginal Music Emission," Marisa López-Teijón, Álex García-Faura, and Alberto Prats-Galino10
Conventional wisdom says that playing music to your future baby will make it smart (though there are some major flaws with the so called "Mozart Effect").  You might be wondering, though, what the best way to deliver that music is.  You see a lot of images with a pregnant woman with headphones on her belly, but much like an infomercial, there must be a better way!  It turns out that fetuses show increased mouth opening, rotation, and tongue expulsion when a flute melody is played through an intravaginal microphone as opposed to just headphones on the belly.  The researchers had to ensure that the responses were due to music and not just vibration, so as a control condition, they administered intravaginal vibration, which also resulted in fewer facial expressions that the intravaginal music.  There is no report on how many American Pie "One time, at band camp, I stuck a flute up my ...." references were made during the course of data collection.  If this finding sounds like music to your, uh, ears, rest easy, because they marketed Babypod, a vaginally inserted speaker that comes with headphones so you can listen to the same thing your baby is.  

And with vaginal speakers and control vibrators, my tour through this year's Ig Nobel winners is complete.  For past winners, visit Improbable Research's website.  I recommend 2014 as a particularly good year.