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Ig Nobel Awards Given For Rat Pants, Fly Catchers And Rocks With Personalities

Thomas Thwaites, in his goat suit, prepares to speak after receiving the Ig Nobel prize in biology from Nobel laureate Eric Maskin (economics, 2007) during ceremonies at Harvard University on Thursday.
Michael Dwyer
Thomas Thwaites, in his goat suit, prepares to speak after receiving the Ig Nobel prize in biology from Nobel laureate Eric Maskin (economics, 2007) during ceremonies at Harvard University on Thursday.

Congratulations are in order, kind of, for a few exemplary researchers and one massive multinational corporation.

This year's Ig Nobel awards — the rather-less-noble-than-the-Nobel awards for "improbable" research and accomplishments — were announced Thursday night.

The honorees included a man who lived as a goat, a man who lived as a badger, a man who put tiny pants on rats and tracked their sex lives, a team who investigated the personalities of rocks, and Volkswagen.

The prizes are given for "achievements that make people LAUGH, and then THINK," as the Annals of Improbable Research, the science humor magazine that doles out the awards, puts it.

Most of the awards were grin-inducing. There was the Perception Prize, for Japanese researchers who investigated "whether things look different when you bend over and view them between your legs."

"From Junior to Senior Pinocchio" won the Psychology Prize. The research explores how liars lie over lifetimes — based on the liars' descriptions of their own lie frequency.

The Physics Prize was shared between scientists who discovered "why white-haired horses are the most horsefly-proof horses," and those who uncovered "why dragonflies are fatally attracted to black tombstones."

And the rock personas? That was the Economics Prize, given to marketing theorists who explored how people perceive rocks, you know, personality-wise.

Many of the studies are actual peer-reviewed research projects that are more significant or interesting than they might appear at first glance. At least one had obvious utility: the research that won the Medicine Prize by demonstrating that an itch can be scratched without touching it, if you trick your brain with mirrors.

But one of the Ig Nobels was particularly ignoble: the Chemistry Prize, awarded to Volkswagen "for solving the problem of excessive automobile pollution emissions," the award-givers noted sarcastically. (VW, of course, cheated on emissions tests to disguise the fact that supposedly low-emission cars were quite the opposite.)

No one from the company attended the awards ceremony, according to AIR's program.

Several of the recipients might be familiar to NPR fans. We've profiled them before — which may testify either to the good taste of the Ig Nobel committee or the questionable judgment of this network.

You might recall the "goat man," Thomas Thwaites, who built a special suit that made him ... goat-y. He shared the Biology Prize with a man who lived "in the wild as, at different times, a badger, an otter, a deer, a fox, and a bird."

"Human life can just be so difficult," Thwaites told NPR a few months ago. "And you look at a goat and it's just, you know, it's free. It doesn't have any concerns."

And he told our Goats and Soda blog that goats aren't great conversationalists. "They're much more about smell and body posture," he said.

In the realm of literature, Fredrik Sjöberg was honored "for his three-volume autobiographical work about the pleasures of collecting flies that are dead, and flies that are not yet dead."

The first book in that series was recommended by NPR Books editor Petra Mayer as a top pick for the summer. "It's a memoir by a Swedish entomologist who lives on a tiny island — but it sort of defies summary, because you read it and he's so funny and he's so observant and his wit is so dry, you want to go hunting flies with him."

And the author spoke with NPR about his work and his book. "It's more or less difficult to make an impression on people with flies, but there are a few people around the world that really got impressed," he said.

The Peace Prize went to scientists who explored how good — or bad — people are at identifying "pseudo-profound bullshit," a project that inspired Tania Lombrozo to muse on NPR's 13.7 blog about the "special expertise and some confidence" required to tell the profound from the preposterous.

And then, of course, there are the rat pants.

NPR didn't speak to the now-deceased Dr. Ahmed Shafik about his project — which earned him a posthumous Reproduction Prize — but his work came up in conversation with author Mary Roach.

Here's a relevant excerpt from Roach's book:

"Dr. Ahmed Shafik wears three-piece suits with gold watch fobs and a diamond stick pin in the lapel. His glasses are the thick, black rectangular style of the Nasser era. He owns a Cairo hospital and lives in a mansion with marble walls. He was nominated for a Nobel Prize. I don't care about any of this. Shafik won my heart by publishing a paper in European Urology in which he investigated the effects of polyester on sexual activity. Ahmed Shafik dressed lab rats in polyester pants.

"There were seventy-five rats. They wore their pants for one year. Shafik found that over time the ones dressed in polyester or poly-cotton blend had sex significantly less often than the rats whose slacks were cotton or wool. (Shafik thinks the reason is that polyester sets up troublesome electrostatic fields in and around the genitals. Having seen an illustration of a rat wearing the pants, I would say there's an equal possibility that it's simply harder to get a date when you dress funny.)"

If you have someone in mind for next year's Ig Nobel awards, you can nominate anyone by email or snail mail. The satirical magazine says the award is "quite possibly" an honor.

The prizes are handed out by "genuine, genuinely bemused Nobel Laureates," AIR says.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.