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Even seemingly silly science can be useful — for example, it's good to know that if you're experiencing a raging nosebleed, shoving a slice of cured pork up your nose just might save your life. Or that it's normal to see the face of Jesus on a piece of toast.
Those published scientific findings, and many more, won the highest honors at the 24th annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, conducted at Harvard's Sanders Theater on Thursday. The Ig Nobels are traditionally given out during the buildup to the real Nobel Prize announcements, under the auspices of a humor magazine called the Annals of Improbable Research.
"Every winner has done something that first makes people laugh, and then makes them think," said Marc Abrahams, the magazine's editor and impresario for the event.
Some of the winners go on to win honest-to-goodness Nobels — such as the University of Manchester's Andrei Geim, who won an Ig Nobel for his work with levitating frogs and then shared the 2010 Nobel Prize for physics, thanks to his work with graphene.
The winners of the Ig Nobel Prize for neuroscience may not get a Nobel for their research into what happens in the brains of people who see Jesus' face in toast. But the University of Toronto's Kang Lee, one of the laureates, said the study could provide those people with valuable reassurance.
"You're completely normal if you see non-existent faces in everyday objects," Lee told the crowd.
In fact, if you can't see patterns where they don't really exist, you may be lacking in the creativity department, Lee said. But he offered a remedy: "I just found out you can buy a Jesus-face toaster on eBay," he said.
In contrast, the pork-in-the-nose trick was truly a life-and-death matter. Physicians at Detroit Medical Center used strips of cured pork as a treatment of last resort when they treated a 4-year-old girl with an uncontrollable nosebleed. The girl had a rare genetic condition known as Glanzmann thrombasthena, which causes prolonged bleeding.
Cured pork has been used in the past as a folk remedy for nosebleeds. The physicians remembered that, and discovered that the remedy really, really worked, thanks to clotting factors in the pork as well as the salt's tendency to draw out fluids from the nose.
It's not the recommended therapy, but one of the winners of the Ig Nobel Prize for medicine, Sonal Saraiya, told The Associated Press that "we had to do some out-of-the-box thinking."
Thursday's ceremony had the usual Ig Nobel trappings, including the traditional throwing of paper airplanes and a "Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobel-Laureate" contest. (A rendezvous with 1986 chemistry laureate Dudley Herschbach was the prize.) In accordance with this year's food theme, the event featured a three-act mini-opera about faddish pill diets, titled "What's Eating You"; and a quickie talk by Rob Rhinehart, the inventor of Soylent instant all-in-one food.
Here's the full list of this year's Ig Nobel Prizes:
Physics: Kiyoshi Mabuchi, Kensei Tanaka, Daichi Uchijima and Rina Sakai, for measuring the amount of friction between a shoe and a banana skin, and between a banana skin and the floor, when a person steps on a banana skin that's on the floor. Scientific reference: Mabuchi et al.
Neuroscience: Jiangang Liu, Jun Li, Lu Feng, Ling Li, Jie Tian and Kang Lee, for trying to understand what happens in the brains of people who see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast. Scientific reference: Liu et al. In the news: "Why it's perfectly normal to see Jesus in toast."
Psychology: Peter K. Jonason, Amy Jones and Minna Lyons, for amassing evidence that people who habitually stay up late are, on average, more self-admiring, more manipulative and more psychopathic than people who habitually arise early in the morning. Scientific reference: Jonason et al. In the news: "Night owls are more likely to be jerks, new study suggests."
Public health: Jaroslav Flegr, Jan Havlicek, Jitka Hanusova-Lindova, David Hanauer, Naren Ramakrishnan and Lisa Seyfried, for investigating whether it is mentally hazardous for a human being to own a cat. Scientific references: Fleger and Havlicek, Fleger et al., Hanauer et al. In the news: "Cat poop parasite controls minds early — and permanently, study finds."
Biology: Vlastimil Hart, Petra Novakova, Erich Pascal Malkemper, Sabine Begall, Vladimír Hanzal, Milos Jezek, Tomas Kusta, Veronika Nemcova, Jana Adamkova, Katerina Benediktova, Jaroslav Cerveny and Hynek Burda, for carefully documenting that when dogs defecate and urinate, they prefer to align their body axis with Earth's north-south geomagnetic field lines. Scientific reference: Hart et al. In the news: "Do dogs have a poop compass?"
Art: Marina de Tommaso, Michele Sardaro and Paolo Livrea, for measuring the relative pain people suffer while looking at an ugly painting, rather than a pretty painting, while being shot (in the hand) by a powerful laser beam. Scientific reference: de Tommaso et al. In the news: "Beautiful art eases pain."
Economics: ISTAT, the Italian government's National Institute of Statistics, for proudly taking the lead in fulfilling the European Union mandate for each country to increase the official size of its national economy by including revenues from prostitution, illegal drug sales, smuggling and other unlawful financial transactions. Reference: ISTAT website.
Medicine: Ian Humphreys, Sonal Saraiya, Walter Belenky and James Dworkin, for treating "uncontrollable" nosebleeds, using the method of nasal-packing-with-strips-of-cured-pork. Scientific reference: Humphreys et al. In the news: "Is bacon a cure-all for nosebleeds?"
Arctic science: Eigil Reimers and Sindre Eftestøl, for testing how reindeer react to seeing humans who are disguised as polar bears. Scientific reference: Reimers and Eftestol.
Nutrition: Raquel Rubio, Anna Jofré, Belén Martín, Teresa Aymerich and Margarita Garriga, for their study titled "Characterization of Lactic Acid Bacteria Isolated from Infant Faeces as Potential Probiotic Starter Cultures for Fermented Sausages." Scientific reference: Rubio et al. In the news: "Baby-poop bacteria help make healthy sausages."