Scientists win Ig Nobels for studying narcissists’ eyebrows, making frozen poop knives

Canadians’ hearts should swell with pride and joy for the scientists who took home Ig Nobels this week for their research into frozen fecal weaponry and vainglorious eyebrow maintenance, says the organizer of the spoof awards.

This Thursday marked the 30th annual Ig Nobels, a parody of the Nobel Prizes, that dole out honours for weird and humorous academic achievement. Two of this year’s winners had Canadian connections.

The Material Science Prize went to Metin Eren and his team at Ohio’s Kent State University for their failed attempt to make a functioning knife out of Eren’s own frozen feces. 

“Those scientists got good outcomes from their research,” Marc Abrahams — editor of the Annals of Improbable Research magazine, which sponsors the awards — quipped during an interview with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

“The point, if there is a point to the Ig Nobels, is to let people know about a bunch of things that make anybody laugh, and then think. And if this particular research project doesn’t do that to you, then I feel sorry for you.”

Researchers attempted to make a frozen knife out of human feces sharp enough to cut meat. (Submitted by Metin Eren)

The research was inspired by an Inuit folktale Eren read in Wade Davis’ anthology Shadows in the Sun, in which a man who was forcibly removed from his community escapes by forging a sharp blade from his own frozen feces.

“The story goes that he killed a dog with that knife, used its rib cage as a sled, and used its hide to harness another dog, and he sped off into the night,” Eren told As It Happens in September 2019, when the research was first published in the Journal of Archeological Science: Reports. 

He and his team were unable to replicate the legendary feat. Their knives were never sharp enough to cut meat. But says he’s thrilled to be honoured with an Ig Nobel for his efforts.

“I followed the Ig Nobels my entire life. It’s a dream come true, really,” he told the Guardian.

Marc Abrahams holds up the 2019 Ig Nobel Award at the 29th ceremony last year. This year’s ceremony was held virtually. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

A joint Canadian-U.S. team took home the Psychology Prize for their 2018 study tying narcissism to people who have “distinctive eyebrows.”

“Narcissists tend to take a lot more care of their eyebrows and often emphasize the way they look compared to the way non-narcissists treat their eyebrows,” Abrahams said.

Asked if the study takes on new relevance in an era where people are wearing masks in public spaces, Abrahams said: “You’ve just raised a question there that could take almost endless amount of research if you really wanted to do an endless amount of research on it.”

A couple Ig Nobels went to scientists who studied creepy crawlies. 

An international team of scientists won the Physics Prize for vibrating live earthworms in order to analyze the waves they produced. That study was published in Nature. 

“So now anybody else who has done their own work on vibrating earthworms is going to have to face the fact that a prize has already been given to somebody about this,” Abrahams said.

California’s Richard Vetter won an Ig Nobel for his 2013 paper looking at why people who spend their lives studying insects are still sometimes creeped out by spiders.

“It always struck me as funny that when I talked to entomologists about spiders, they would say something along the lines of, ‘Oh, I hate spiders!”‘ he told The Associated Press.

A team from Austria, Sweden, Japan, the United States and Switzerland took home the Acoustics Prize for giving helium to alligators and then recording their bellows. 

“It’s much like what happens with people,” Abrahams said, raising his voice to a high pitch. “The alligators get a higher voice.” 

U.S. President Donald Trump, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin were among a group of world leaders to win the Medical Education Ig Nobel for their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Susan Walsh/The Associated Press)

The Medical Education Prize went not to scientists, but rather a group of world leaders for their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was shared by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and, of course, U.S. President Donald Trump.

“They were honoured for using the COVID-19 viral pandemic to teach the world that politicians can have a more immediate effect on life and death than scientists and doctors can,” Abrahams said.

“We tried to get in touch with each of them to have them be in the ceremony, but we still are enmeshed in bureaucracy and all of those countries trying to get through. So we don’t know directly how they feel about it.”

And finally, much like the actual Nobels, “the most prestigious of the bunch” is the Peace Prize, says Abrahams,

“This year went to the governments of India and Pakistan for having their diplomats surreptitiously ring each other’s doorbells in the middle of the night and then run away before anybody had a chance to answer the door,” Abrahams said.

The incident in question happened in 2018, according to the Guardian.

“We gave an Ig Nobel Prize cheat probably 25 years ago or so to the prime ministers of India and Pakistan at that point for setting off atomic bombs in each other’s backyards peacefully. So this is, I guess, a proud tradition that’s being carried on in those two countries by the governments.”

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