Eyebrow-raising research

Ella Rhodes reports from the Ig Nobel awards, for research which makes you smile and think.

18 September 2020

Have you ever wondered what we can tell about someone’s personality from their eyebrows? What might happen to an earthworm if it is vibrated at a high frequency? Or whether knives made from frozen human faeces are of any use? Thanks to this year’s Ig Nobel prize winners we can now answer those burning questions. 

This year marks the 30th Ig Nobel Prize which is awarded to achievements that first make you laugh, then make you think. While the awards ceremony is usually held at Harvard University, thanks to Covid-19 it was moved online this year. Marc Abrahams, Editor of prize organiser the Annals of Improbable Research, acted as (remote) Master of Ceremonies. 

As is tradition, each Ig Nobel winner was presented their prize by real Nobel laureates including Frances Arnold, Marty Chalfie, and former Ig Nobel winner Andre Geim. Happily the ceremony still featured its usual silliness as well as the debut of a mini opera Dream, Little Cockroach.  

Miranda Giacomin and Nicholas Rule won this year’s psychology prize for discovering that narcissists could be identified by looking at their eyebrows. They explored the different facial features that could indicate someone is a grandiose narcissist and found that eyebrow distinctiveness, for example thickness and density, was the primary feature leading to accurate judgements of narcissism. 

The entomology prize was won by Richard Vetter for his beautifully-titled paper Arachnophobic Entomologists: When Two More Legs Makes a Big Difference. He collected evidence that showed entomologists, who study insects, can be afraid of spiders despite their years of exposure to arachnids (which aren’t classed as insects). Vetter concluded: ‘Despite the assumption that entomologists would extend warm feelings toward spiders because of their habituation to arthropods in general, arachnophobia does occur in some members of our profession. For these people, two more legs makes a big difference.’

This year’s Peace Prize was awarded 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 anyone had a chance to answer the door’. The Materials Science Award went to Metin Eren, Michelle Bebber, James Norris, Alyssa Perrone, Ashley Rutkoski, Michael Wilson, and Mary Ann Raghanti, for demonstrating that knives made from frozen human faeces do not work.

For their work to show, during the Covid-19 pandemic, that politicians can have a more immediate effect on life and death than scientists and doctors, The Medical Education Prize went to President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President of Mexico Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, President of the USA Donald Trump, President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin President of Russia and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, the president of Turkmenistan. 

A team from The Netherlands and Belgium – Nienke Vulink, Damiaan Denys, and Arnoud van Loon – won the Medicine Prize for developing diagnostic criteria for misophonia, the discomfort and distress some people experience when hearing others make chewing sounds or other ‘aversive human sounds’. 

A group of five professional Chinese hitmen, (奚广安) Xi Guang-An, (莫天祥) Mo Tian-Xiang, (杨康生) Yang Kang-Sheng, (杨广生) Yang Guang-Sheng, and (凌显四) Ling Xian Si, won the Management Prize for managing a contract killing in a unique way. ‘After accepting payment to perform the murder, Xi Guang-An then instead subcontracted the task to Mo Tian-Xiang, who then instead subcontracted the task to Yang Kang-Sheng, who then instead subcontracted the task to Yang Guang-Sheng, who then instead subcontracted the task to Ling Xian-Si, with each subsequently enlisted hitman receiving a smaller percentage of the fee, and nobody actually performing a murder.’

Christopher Watkins, Juan David Leongómez, Jeanne Bovet, Agnieszka Żelaźniewicz, Max Korbmacher, Marco Antônio Corrêa Varella, Ana Maria Fernandez, Danielle Wagstaff, and Samuela Bolgan, won the Economics Prize for attempting to quantify the relationship between a country’s national income inequality and the amount of mouth-to-mouth kissing.

The Physics Prize was awarded to Ivan Maksymov and Andriy Pototsky for discovering that vibrating earthworms at high frequency leads to the ‘onset of subharmonic Faraday-like body waves’. 

Finally the Acoustics Prize was awarded to a team from Austria, Sweden, Japan, the USA and Swtizerland – Stephan Reber, Takeshi Nishimura, Judith Janisch, Mark Robertson, and Tecumseh Fitch. To find out whether alligators have vocal tract resonances, seen in human speech, they examined a Chinese alligator’s bellows in an airtight chamber filled with helium and oxygen vs its bellows in normal air, and indeed it seemed alligators do have these resonances.

Watch the webcast ceremony; and find references to each of the winners’ publications

Find much more Ig Nobel research in our archive, including these two articles from Marc Abrahams.