Ig Nobel scientists ask: Do people read the instructions? Does a spit & shine really work?

The Annals of Improbable Research has awarded Ig Nobel prizes to several scientists in honor of research that "makes people laugh, then think," according to founder Marc Abrahams.

Winners received a statue in the shape of a heart, a piece of paper signed by Nobel laureates, and $10 trillion Zimbabwean dollars. Nobel laureates distributed the awards during a ceremony at Harvard University earlier this month.

The 2018 recipients include researchers who investigated:

Can a roller coaster ride hasten the passage of kidney stones? Yes, if you're riding in the back car of Big Thunder Mountain at Walt Disney World. Marc Mitchell and David Wartinger, both urologists at Michigan State University, created a kidney replica—complete with kidney stones—put it in a backpack, and let it ride Big Thunder Mountain 60 times. They found that riding in the back car was the most effective, with the stones passing 64% of the time.

Is human saliva a good cleaning agent for dirty surfaces? Scientists Paula Romão, Adília Alarcão, and César Viana collected saliva and measured how effective it was at removing dirt from 18th century gilded sculptures. Human spit is an effective cleaning agent because it has an enzyme that breaks down starch into simple sugars.

The researchers note that conservators have been cleaning old paintings and ceramics with their own spit for years. "I know that it seems quite improbable, but human saliva is indeed an effective cleaning agent for surfaces like paintings, sculptures and gilded wood. But don’t try to use it on your kitchen counters," Romão said in the group's acceptance speech.

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Do people read the instruction manual? People neither read manuals nor use all of the features on their products, according to an observational study by Thea Blacker, a professor at Queensland University of Technology. Blackler and her colleagues also found that those with more education were less likely to read the instructions. "Personally, once we had the results I abandoned that lingering sense of guilt about not using all the features on most of my products," Blackler told ABC.

Other winners concluded that a human-cannibalism diet is less caloric than other meat diets and that chimpanzees imitate humans about as often, and as well, as humans imitate chimpanzees. You can see the full list of winners here.

These topics may seem silly, but many famous scientists have asked and pursued seemingly ridiculous questions, writes Eva Botkin-Kowacki for Christian Science Monitor. She points to Charles Darwin, who often challenged the obvious through what he called "fools' experiments."

Unconventional thinking drives Nobel Prize-worthy breakthroughs, says Dudley Herschbach, a professor emeritus of chemistry at Harvard. "Scientists are really kids. They’re the ones who are really curious, and they never grow up. They stay curious," he adds (Botkin-Kowacki, Christian Science Monitor, 9/14; Annals of Improbable Research release, accessed 9/19;  Lee Reynolds, Mental Floss, 8/15; Stoye, Chemistry World, 9/14; Nair, ABC, 9/13).

Related: How well do you communicate the value of research through your website?


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