Ig Nobel Prizes: from running on water to eating shrew without a chew

The humorous science prizes reward offbeat research on subjects such as ridding aircraft of hijackers and the effects of Mozart on mice that have undergone heart transplants

An Ig Nobel Prize at the Harvard University ceremony. Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters

An Ig Nobel Prize at the Harvard University ceremony. Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters

Thu, Sep 26, 2013, 01:00

Running on water would be out of this world

If you fancy running across the surface of a pond, you might have a better shot at it if you – and the pond – are on the moon, according to a group of scientists in Italy.

The researchers, who carried out their experiments using an inflatable wading pool, scooped the Ig Nobel Prize for Physics earlier this month for their work on gravity and humans running across the top of water. The annual Ig Nobels, from the Annals of Improbable Research, honour achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think”.

Other awardees at the ceremony, which was held at Harvard University, received accolades for, among other things, looking at the immune-boosting effects of opera after heart transplants in mice; devising a plan to rid aircraft of hijackers; and even eating a shrew in the name of science.

But let’s go back to that running-on-the-inflatable-pool experiment. “Notwithstanding various internet hoaxes, humans are apparently incapable of walking or running on water,” wrote the authors in their award-winning paper last year in PLOS One. But could we manage it if it weren’t for all that pesky gravity?

To test the level of gravity at which humans could run on water, they rigged up the inflatable pool and asked six participants to don small fins on their feet and run with their body weight supported to simulate various conditions of gravity. Meanwhile their joint movements were tracked electronically.

The upshot? Running on water would be an out-of-this-world experience for humans, according to the findings, and the researchers even mapped out various spots in the solar system where conditions might allow it – including our own moon. Good luck finding a lunar pond to run on, though, or even managing an inflatable pool out there.

Opera, hijackers and shrew but no chew

Researchers from Japan picked up their Ig Nobel for discovering that mice have a more favourable immune response after a heart transplant if they are exposed to Mozart or opera (specifically La Traviata) compared with hearing Enya or a single sound frequency. “Brain function with auditory stimulation may affect aspects of the peripheral immune response,” they concluded last year in the Journal of Cardiothoracic Surgery.

The safety engineering Ig Nobel was awarded posthumously to Gustano Pizzo for an invention to thwart aircraft hijackers. The electromechanical system would send the offending hijacker through trapdoors into a package, which would be jettisoned out through bomb bay doors and parachuted to the ground, where the alerted police would be waiting. The in-flight system was described in a patent in 1972.

And the award for archaeology went to a study that involved Brian Crandall swallowing “skinned, eviscerated, and segmented” shrew without chewing, and then examining what came out the other end over subsequent days. Why? To examine the effects of the human digestive system on a small mammal skeleton, of course. Crandall pointed out that he was an undergraduate at the time of the 1995 study (maybe it made a change from beans on toast) and he was glad the work was finally getting recognition. improbable.com/ig/winners