Musical cats, upside-down rhinos, and submarine cockroaches took the gold last night at the 31stst annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony—an awards show honoring research that “makes people laugh, then think.” Although the pandemic kept the ceremony virtual for a second year, organizers made the best of the format. Nobel laureates, including Frances Arnold (chemistry, 2018) and Eric Maskin (economics, 2007), “handed” awardees their prizes—self-assembled 3D paper gears printed with pictures of teeth. This year’s theme was “engineering.”
The biology prize—one of 10 awards—went to a series of studies on the purrs, trills, tweedles, murmurs, meows, yowls, and other sounds cats seem to use to communicate their desires to humans. Cat vocalization researcher Susanne Schötz at Lund University has been hard at work cracking the “cat code” with her collaborators since 2011, handing the microphone to cats to analyze what felines mean when they meow.
Schötz was honored for several papers, including one on how well humans interpret cat “meowsic.” She reported that when cats want food from their owners, their sounds tend to rise in pitch at the end. If the cats are anxious about a trip to the vet, however, they drop their pitch. When she played meows for a group of 30 humans, she found they guessed the cats’ feelings from intonation alone the majority of the time. Cat owners were the best guessers, showing that when it comes to cats, practice makes purrfect.
Other prizes went to research on animals that reached for the sky and dove under the sea. The transportation prize honored researchers who determined that the best way to transport a rhinoceros by helicopter is upside down. This technique has been vital to conservationists who move large animals such as rhinos and elephants to keep them safe from poachers or maintain genetic diversity. During the ceremony, the honorees assured Nobel laureate Richard Roberts (physiology or medicine, 1993) that they’d tested the technique on themselves before trying it on rhinos. Roberts maintained that if he ever had to be transported to a safer place, “I hope not to be doing it upside down.”
The entomology prize highlighted one of the most fraught human-animal relationships: the ongoing battle between humans and cockroaches. For this prize, the awards committee dug deep into the archives for a study from 1971 titled, “A new method of cockroach control on submarines.” Retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. John Mulrennan Jr. accepted the award for developing a new technique for getting rid of cockroaches on navy submarines using a pesticide called dichlorvos after the ethylene oxide gas previously used made someone sick. “The Navy was happy at the time,” he noted in his acceptance speech, although he doesn’t know whether it still uses his technique.
Other awards included the physics prize, for an analysis of why people in crowds don’t constantly run into each other, and the kinetics prize, for a study answering why they sometimes do (the answer: cellphones). The ecology prize went to an analysis of bacteria that hitch a ride on used chewing gum, the peace prize went to a test of how effectively beards protect faces from punches (they soften the blow), and the medicine prize went to a study of whether orgasms can serve as an effective nasal decongestant. (They can, but the effects only last about 1 hour.) Winners also received a fake 10 trillion Zimbabwean dollar bill from Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research and host of the ceremony.
Dispersed throughout the night were several “24/7” talks, in which researchers gave full technical descriptions of a scientific topic in 24 seconds followed by a simple explanation in seven words. (“Coffee drinking: good, good for you … maybe!”) To round out the proceedings, scientists and opera singers performed an original three-act miniopera called A Bridge Between People. Its plot revolved around children bringing together angry adults by building tiny suspension bridges between them.
Abrahams ended the night by expressing his hope that everyone could be together in person next year, and by delivering his traditional signoff: “If you didn’t win an Ig Nobel Prize tonight—and especially if you did—better luck next year.”