Spoof Nobel prizes awarded

2012-09-21 11:32
Professor Robert Kirshner holds up a piece of pie while explaining a pie chart about the universe, shortly before eating it, during a performance at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony at Harvard University. (Charles Krupa, AP)

Professor Robert Kirshner holds up a piece of pie while explaining a pie chart about the universe, shortly before eating it, during a performance at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony at Harvard University. (Charles Krupa, AP)

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Chicago - Psychologists who discovered that leaning to the left makes the Eiffel Tower seem smaller, neuroscientists who found brain activity in a dead salmon, and designers of a device that can silence blowhards are among the winners of Ig Nobel prizes for the oddest and silliest real discoveries.

The annual prizes are awarded by the Annals of Improbable Research as a whimsical counterpart to the Nobel prizes, which will be announced early in October.

Former winners of the real Nobels hand out the Ig Nobel awards at a ceremony held at Harvard University in Massachusetts.

Ig Nobels for 2012 also went to US researchers who discovered that chimps can recognize other chimps by looking at snapshots of their backsides, and to a Swedish researcher for solving the puzzle of why people's hair turned green while living in certain houses in the town of Anderslöv, Sweden. (The culprit was a combination of copper pipes and hot showers.)

Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals and architect of the Ig Nobels who announced the winners on Thursday, said one of his personal favourites was this year's Acoustics Prize.

Infamous studies


Japanese researchers Kazutaka Kurihara and Koji Tsukada created the SpeechJammer, a machine that disrupts a person's speech by playing it back with a very slight delay.

"It's a small thing you aim at someone who is droning on and on," Abrahams said. "What the person hears is just off enough that it completely disconcerts and discombobulates them, and they stop talking. It has thousands of potential good uses."

Abrahams' panel of experts also cited the work of Dutch psychologists Anita Eerland, Rolf Zwaan and PhD student Tulio Guadalupe for their study, Leaning to the Left Makes the Eiffel Tower Seem Smaller.

The work explored how posture influences estimations of size: With leaning to the left correlating with lower estimates, and leaning to the right correlating with higher estimates.

The team tested this by placing 33 undergraduates on a Wii Balance Board, which tilted slightly to the left or the right while they were asked to guess the size of objects, including the height of the Eiffel Tower.

As expected, those who leaned left had lower guesses than those who leaned to the right or stood up straight.

One of the more infamous studies winning an Ig Nobel was for research detecting meaningful brain activity in a dead salmon.

False signals

It started as a lark, said Craig Bennett of the University of California, Santa Barbara, who studies adolescent brain development using functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI, a technique for measuring brain activity.

Before starting tests on people, scientists first check their equipment using a phantom object, typically a sphere filled with mineral oil. But since any object will do, Bennett and colleagues had been trying out a variety of items, including a pumpkin, a Cornish game hen, and finally, an Atlantic salmon.

In the salmon test, the team showed photos to the dead fish and asked it to determine what emotion the person was feeling.

"By random chance and by simple noise, we saw small data points in the brain of the fish that were considered to be active," said Bennett. "It was a false positive. It's not really there."

The often-quoted study exposed the perils of fMRI science, which can be prone to false signals, and underscored the need to do statistical corrections to safeguard against such silly findings.

"It's a great teachable moment for how we should process the MRI data," he said.

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