Will An Indian Win The Ig Nobel?

January 18th, 2019

Vasudevan Mukunth writes, in The Wire:

Will An Indian Win The Ig Nobel?

instead of endorsing the view that an Indian will a Nobel Prize by 2035, the Government of India should aspire to have an Indian win an Ig Nobel Prize within the next two decades if the intent is to target a prize at all.

Although there is an apparent sense of ridicule in the prizes’ premise, it is gentle and in fact uplifting. A government should aspire to help its country’s scientists win an Ig Nobel Prize because the government, at least some department of it, has tremendous influence on the national research culture and research priorities. In this framework, to win an Ig Nobel Prize would mean being able to work on what scientists deem worth their while. This in turn would require the presence of a research evaluation scheme that is fair, efficient and not very exacting, allowing scientists the time to work on projects that catch their fancy without consequence for their career advancement or other responsibilities.

Did Bigger Penises Evolve to Protect Hermit Crabs’ Private Property?

January 17th, 2019

Sex, economics, evolution, and stuckness all play roles in this new study about the evolution of larger penises in hermit crabs:

Private parts for private property: evolution of penis size with more valuable, easily stolen shells,” Mark E. Laidre, Royal Society Open Science, epub 2019. (Thanks to Thomas Michel for bringing this to our attention.) The author, at Dartmouth College, explains:

the importance of private property in driving penis size evolution has rarely been explored. Here, I introduce a novel hypothesis, the ‘private parts for private property’ hypothesis, which posits that enlarged penises evolved to prevent the theft of property during sex. I tested this hypothesis in hermit crabs, which carry valuable portable property (a shell) and which must emerge from this shell during sex, risking social theft of their property by eavesdroppers. I measured relative penis size (penis-to-body ratio) for N= 328 specimens spanning nine closely related species. Species carrying more valuable, more easily stolen property had significantly larger penis size than species carrying less valuable, less easily stolen property, which, in turn, had larger penis size than species carrying no property at all.

You can perhaps see how this plays out, by watching a short video by Sara Lewis and Randi Rotjan, called “Social Networking by Hermit Crabs”:

Abby Olena has an essay about the new study, in The Scientist: “Larger Hermit Crab Penises May Prevent Shell Theft.”

“A Jackass and a Fish”—Doctors save the life of a Fish-Called-Wanda imitator

January 17th, 2019

This young man who swallowed a fish
As part of a party tradish-
ion he followed with friends:
Unhappy? Depends.
The young man has gotten his wish.

That limerick is a hasty summary of the medical case described in this newly published study:

A Jackass and a Fish: A Case of Life-Threatening Intentional Ingestion of a Live Pet Catfish (Corydoras aeneus),” Linda B.L. Benoist, Ben van der Hoven, Annemarie C. de Vries, Bas Pullens, Erwin J.O. Kompanje, and Cornelis W. Moeliker, Acta Oto-Laryngologica Case Reports, vol. 4, no. 1, 2019. The authors explain:

Inspired by Jackass (a tv-show about self-injuring stunts), some friends topped off a drinking party with live fishes from their aquarium. After the goldfishes had gone down smoothly, a bronze catfish was ingested. Unaware of the morphology and anti-predator behaviour of this species, a healthy but intoxicated 28-year-old man got a surprise. The catfish erected and locked the spines of its pectoral fins and got lodged in the hypopharynx. After several hours, he presented himself at the emergency department with dysphonia and dysphagia. The fish had to be removed endoscopically. Intubation and admittance to the intensive care unit was necessary due to laryngeal oedema. Two weeks postoperatively, the patient made a full recovery and donated the fish to the Natural History Museum Rotterdam. The publicity generated by public exhibition of the ‘do-not-swallow-fish’ emphasised the official Jackass warning: ‘.. do not attempt any of the stunts you’re about to see’.

The study included hospital-taken photos and video. (The published report does not, alas, include something that it does explicitly mention: a “two-minute home video” of the patient swallowing the fish, with accompanying encouragement from buddies).

Every doctor who was called in to help with the case ended up as a co-author of this study. Another co-author, C.W. (Kees) Moeliker, is the Ig Nobel Prize-winning discoverer of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck, and is also director of the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam. A few years ago the museum hosted the first public medical discussion of this case, a discussion that has now matured to become this study.

Among the knowledge sources cited in this paper, one stands out: “Cleese J, Crichton C. A fish called Wanda. Beverly Hills (CA): Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Production; 1988.” The young man who swallowed the fish was inspired by this scene from the movie:

Philosophical disagreements on possible reason(s) ‘Why Flatulence is Funny’ – Professor Sellmaier v. Professor Spiegel

January 17th, 2019

If you want a reliable method of raising a laugh, you can always resort to references of flatulence – a comedic ploy that goes back (at least) 2000 years. But the question as to why it’s considered funny, remains, to this day, a hotly debated subject.

In 2013, Professor James Spiegel of the Philosophy Department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, US, took a stab at explaining the phenomenon in issue 35 of the journal ‘Think’ (a journal of The Royal Institute of Philosophy, UK)

“[…] flatulence is a phenomenon that prompts a sudden sense of superiority, is incongruous with many aspects of human social life, and creates a constant exertion of mental energy from which we all need relief from time to time.”


4 years later, however, in the same journal, Prof. Dr. Stephan Sellmaier of the Graduate School of Systemic Neurosciences at Ludwig Maximilian-Universität, München., Germany, gave a blow by blow account of no less than five ‘problematic issues’ with Prof. Spiegel’s essay,

• (1) His claim that laughter always results from a pleasant psychological shift is false.
• (2) His argumentative move from what makes paradigm cases funny to what makes flatulence funny is unwarranted.
• (3) His notion of a psychological shift is not specific enough and lacks explanatory power.
• (4) The claim that funniness of flatulence involves superiority is doubtful.
• (5) His talk about ‘nervous energy’ is questionable and has implausible implications


The illustration is a detail from the He-Gassen scroll (c. 1603–1868)

[ Research research by Martin Gardiner ]

Building conclusions from the remnants of excreted hare bones

January 17th, 2019

“How did they reach that conclusion? … If you eat a shrew whole, and excrete its bones, the bones will have specific hallmarks of human digestion, typified by the concentration of stomach acid and so on. In fact a scientific team won an Ig Nobel Prize in 2013 for studying what happens to shrew bones if the micro-mammal is eaten whole by a human.”

So explains a news report in Haaretz, about a new study: “Prehistoric People Hunted With Dogs in Jordan, Archaeologists Conclude From Hare Explosion.”

This photo shows some of the bone fragments studied in the, er, study:

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