Smart Toilets and Licking Rocks: Ig Nobel Prizes Celebrate Strange Scientific Achievements

Winning research projects reanimated dead spiders and examined how anchovy sexual activity influences ocean mixing

A man wearing a black suit and top hat stands at a podium
Marc Abrahams, creator of the Ig Nobel Prizes, speaks at the 2003 ceremony. The first ceremony was held in 1991. Rick Friedman / Corbis via Getty Images

On Thursday, the ceremony for the 33rd annual edition of the Ig Nobel Prizes took place, rewarding scientists “for achievements that first make people laugh, then make them think.” This year, the Ig Nobels honored research ranging from reanimating dead spiders to studying people who can speak backward.

Organized by the magazine Annals of Improbable Research, the Ig Nobel Prizes have handed out awards across various different scientific categories every year since 1991. Harvard University’s Sanders Theater once hosted the ceremony in person, but the event has occurred virtually since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Winners receive their awards from scientists who have won actual Nobel Prizes. This year’s recipients were sent a PDF document that they could print and fold into a three-dimensional trophy, writes the Guardian’s Nicola Davis.

Despite their seemingly irreverent premise, the awards are meant to draw attention to meaningful scientific achievements. “The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative—and spur people’s interest in science, medicine and technology,” the Ig Nobel website states.

Below is a summary of this year’s ten zany, but award-winning, research projects.

Licking rocks and reanimating spiders

Geologist Jan Zalasiewicz took home the chemistry and geology prize for a 2017 essay explaining why scientists sometimes lick rocks. It’s “part of the geologist’s and paleontologist’s armory of tried-and-much-tested techniques used to help survive in the field,” he writes in the essay entitled “Eating Fossils.” Wetting the surface of a fossil or rock allows mineral particles and textures to stand out. Zalasiewicz was “bemused” to find out he won the award, he told Science’s Phie Jacobs. “It’s nice that the Ig Nobel Committee liked the story.”

Researchers who experimented with using dead spiders as a gripping mechanism received the mechanical engineering award. They found that spiders’ legs, which extend using hydraulic pressure, can be manually opened from their natural, closed state by applying pressure. “The necrobiotic gripper is capable of grasping objects with irregular geometries and up to 130 percent of its own mass,” the authors write in the study, published last year in Advanced Science.

Dead spider transformed into robotic gripper

Words and words and words

The literature prize went to a team investigating the peculiar feeling people get when they repeat a word over and over. In the study, participants wrote down words like “door” or “money” repeatedly, and about two-thirds of them reported “strange subjective experiences” after roughly thirty repetitions, or one minute, per the paper, published in Memory in 2020. The researchers think of the phenomenon as an example of jamais vu—when a familiar thing feels unfamiliar (the opposite of déjà vu). Their paper title begins: “The the the the induction of jamais vu in the laboratory.”

Meanwhile, in the Spanish town of La Laguna, some people have learned to speak backward. The winners of the communication prize imaged the brains of two people who scramble or reverse the order of phonemes, or the sounds that make up words, while talking. Rather than telling someone buenas noches, Spanish for “good night,” users of the local, amusing speaking pattern would say nasbue chesno.

Smart toilets, nose hairs and electric chopsticks

The public health prize honored the invention of the Stanford toilet by urologist Seung-min Park, which studies human waste for signs of illness using a range of technologies—from cameras to motion sensors to medical sensors.

The medicine prize went to researchers who counted the nose hairs of cadavers. People with alopecia, or hair loss, can lose their nostril hair, and the scientists want to learn how this impacted their health. “Our intention to describe human nose hair growth patterns may seem unusual,” dermatologist Natasha Mesinkovska tells Science. “But it originated from a need to better understand the role they play as front-line guardians of the respiratory system.”

Researchers won the nutrition prize for attempting to make food tastier with electrified chopsticks and straws. “The taste of food can be changed immediately and reversibly by electrical stimulation, and this is something that has been difficult to achieve with conventional ingredients such as seasonings,” recipient Hiromi Nakamura tells the Guardian.

The 33rd First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony

Anchovies, suggestion and boring lectures

The physics prize recipients studied an unlikely source of ocean mixing: They examined how the swimming motion of large numbers of anchovies gathering to spawn can promote ocean health by circulating nutrients and oxygen in the water.

Researchers including Stanley Milgram—who conducted controversial 1960s studies that commanded people to administer electric shocks to strangers (the shocks, unbeknownst to the participants, were faked)—received the psychology prize for some more light-hearted research. In a separate 1969 study, the team investigated whether people on a city street would stop to look up at a building if others were already looking. (Milgram died in 1984, but another recipient, one of his students, accepted the award.)

Finally, the education prize winners researched the boredom of teachers and students. In a pair of studies, they found that when students perceive their teacher as bored (which they were not able to perceive accurately), it increases students’ boredom and reduces their motivation. What’s more, merely anticipating that a lecture will be boring makes the actual experience more of a snoozefest.

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