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Slime mold wins geeky prize ... again!

You just can't keep a good slime mold down. That's one of the lessons from tonight's Ig Nobel Prize ceremony.

Here are a few more lessons: Fruit bats like oral sex. Swearing relieves pain. Roller-coaster rides can relieve asthma. Oil and water do mix sometimes. And the best way to figure out who gets a promotion just might be to pull names out of a hat.

This was the 20th "first annual" ceremony to honor scientific achievements that make you laugh, and then make you think. This year's festivities at Harvard University - presented by the Annals of Improbable Research, a scientific humor magazine - were organized around a bacterial theme. Among the highlights: the world premiere of a mini-opera about the bacteria living on a woman's front tooth, an appearance by the "Google Viral and Bacterial Advertising Team," and a warning to the audience that the person in the next seat might be harboring bacteria (doesn't everyone?).

There was the usual Ig Nobel silliness: An 8-year-old girl was on hand to cut off over-long speeches by yelling "Please stop! I'm bored!" Paper airplanes were available for throwing (but only on cue, of course). Actual Nobel laureates handed out the petri-dish awards (and made themselves available for a "Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobel-Laureate Contest").

Nobel laureates

Charles Krupa / AP

Nobel laureates Roy Glauber (Physics, 2005), Sheldon Glashow (Physics, 1979) and James Muller (Peace, 1985) demonstrate how bra cups that can be converted to emergency gas masks during the 2010 Ig Nobel Prize ceremony at Harvard. The bra-mask invention won one of the not-completely-serious scientific prizes in 2009.

But there was also a serious side to go along with the silliness. The Ig Nobel economics prize went to AIG, Goldman Sachs and other fallen financial firms for "creating and promoting new ways to invest money" - ways that led to trillions of dollars in losses worldwide. Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research and the event's master of ceremonies, told The Associated Press that he tried to invite the company's executives to the ceremony.

"We made a few attempts, but soon realized it probably would not be possible," Abrahams said. "They never responded, not even with a 'no thank you.'"

Most of the other Ig Nobel laureates came gladly - so gladly that they paid their own way. Several scientists flew in from Japan to pick up their "Transportation Planning Prize" for figuring out how to use slime mold to design mass-transit routes. The team placed tiny bits of food in a pattern that mirrored Tokyo's rail system, with the slime-mold amoeba in the center. The single-celled creature sent out a web of veins to connect with the food bits - and after 26 hours, the surviving veins linked all the bits in an amazingly efficient way.

The same research team won an Ig Nobel two years earlier for using slime mold in a similar way to solve puzzles. "The slime mold is back!" team members sang during their acceptance speech.

Ig Nobel Prize

Charles Krupa / AP

The 2010 Ig Nobel Prize plaque features a petri dish - perhaps in tribute to the prize-winners who used remote-controlled helicopters to collect whale snot in petri dishes.

The research into fruit-bat oral sex, which won the Ig Nobel for biology, is another example of science that makes you smirk. The research, published in the journal PLoS ONE, led scientists in China to wonder whether the behavior provided an evolutionary advantage. But maybe bats do it just because it feels good.

The Ig Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the scientists who studied why swearing feels good. Richard Stephens, a lecturer in psychology at Britain's Keele University, was inspired to look into the subject when he hit his hand with a hammer and blurted out an expletive ... which seemed to ease the pain. He noticed that his wife went through a similar experience while giving birth to their daughter.

In Stephens' experiment, subjects were asked to keep their hands in ice water for as long as they could stand it. The subjects who swore could take the pain for longer periods. "What we think is, when you swear you produce an emotional reaction in yourself, you arouse your nervous system and you set off the fight-or-flight response," Stephens told AP. "It gets the heart rate up, gets the adrenaline flowing."

Is that just B.S.? Feel free to chime in with your comments below ... but please, keep it clean. This shouldn't be a painful experience.

Here's the full list of this year's Ig Nobel laureates, with links to the award-winning research. And stay tuned for the real Nobel Prize announcements, which are due to roll out starting Monday.

2010 Ig Nobel Prizes:

Engineering Prize: Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse and Agnes Rocha-Gosselin of the Zoological Society of London, and Diane Gendron of Instituto Politecnico Nacional, Baja California Sur, Mexico, for perfecting a method to collect whale snot using a remote-control helicopter.

Reference: "A Novel Non-Invasive Tool for Disease Surveillance of Free-Ranging Whales and Its Relevance to Conservation Programs," Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse, Agnes Rocha-Gosselin and Diane Gendron, Animal Conservation, vol. 13, no. 2, April 2010, pp. 217-25.

Medicine Prize: Simon Rietveld of the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and Ilja van Beest of Tilburg University, The Netherlands, for discovering that symptoms of asthma can be treated with a roller-coaster ride.

Reference: "Rollercoaster Asthma: When Positive Emotional Stress Interferes with Dyspnea Perception," Simon Rietveld and Ilja van Beest, Behaviour Research and Therapy, vol. 45, 2006, pp. 977-87.

Transportation Planning Prize: Toshiyuki Nakagaki, Atsushi Tero, Seiji Takagi, Tetsu Saigusa, Kentaro Ito, Kenji Yumiki, Ryo Kobayashi of Japan, and Dan Bebber, Mark Fricker of the UK, for using slime mold to determine the optimal routes for railroad tracks.

Reference: "Rules for Biologically Inspired Adaptive Network Design," Atsushi Tero, Seiji Takagi, Tetsu Saigusa, Kentaro Ito, Dan P. Bebber, Mark D. Fricker, Kenji Yumiki, Ryo Kobayashi, Toshiyuki Nakagaki, Science, Vol. 327. no. 5964, January 22, 2010, pp. 439-42.

Physics Prize: Lianne Parkin, Sheila Williams, and Patricia Priest of the University of Otago, New Zealand, for demonstrating that, on icy footpaths in wintertime, people slip and fall less often if they wear socks on the outside of their shoes.

Reference: "Preventing Winter Falls: A Randomised Controlled Trial of a Novel Intervention," Lianne Parkin, Sheila Williams, and Patricia Priest, New Zealand Medical Journal. vol. 122, no, 1298, July 3, 2009, pp. 31-8.

Peace Prize: Richard Stephens, John Atkins, and Andrew Kingston of Keele University, UK, for confirming the widely held belief that swearing relieves pain.

Reference: "Swearing as a Response to Pain," Richard Stephens, John Atkins, and Andrew Kingston, Neuroreport, vol. 20 , no. 12, 2009, pp. 1056-60.

Public Health Prize: Manuel Barbeito, Charles Mathews, and Larry Taylor of the Industrial Health and Safety Office, Fort Detrick, Maryland, USA, for determining by experiment that microbes cling to bearded scientists.

Reference: "Microbiological Laboratory Hazard of Bearded Men," Manuel S. Barbeito, Charles T. Mathews, and Larry A. Taylor, Applied Microbiology, vol. 15, no. 4, July 1967, pp. 899–906.

Economics Prize: The executives and directors of Goldman Sachs, AIG, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, and Magnetar for creating and promoting new ways to invest money - ways that maximize financial gain and minimize financial risk for the world economy, or for a portion thereof.

Chemistry Prize: Eric Adams of MIT, Scott Socolofsky of Texas A&M University, Stephen Masutani of the University of Hawaii, and BP, for disproving the old belief that oil and water don't mix.

Reference: "Review of Deep Oil Spill Modeling Activity Supported by the Deep Spill JIP and Offshore Operator's Committee. Final Report," Eric Adams and Scott Socolofsky, 2005.

Management Prize: Alessandro Pluchino, Andrea Rapisarda, and Cesare Garofalo of the University of Catania, Italy, for demonstrating mathematically that organizations would become more efficient if they promoted people at random.

Reference: "The Peter Principle Revisited: A Computational Study," Alessandro Pluchino, Andrea Rapisarda, and Cesare Garofalo, Physica A, vol. 389, no. 3, February 2010, pp. 467-72.

Biology Prize: Libiao Zhang, Min Tan, Guangjian Zhu, Jianping Ye, Tiyu Hong, Shanyi Zhou, and Shuyi Zhang of China, and Gareth Jones of the University of Bristol, UK, for scientifically documenting fellatio in fruit bats.

Reference: "Fellatio by Fruit Bats Prolongs Copulation Time," Min Tan, Gareth Jones, Guangjian Zhu, Jianping Ye, Tiyu Hong, Shanyi Zhou, Shuyi Zhang and Libiao Zhang, PLoS ONE, vol. 4, no. 10, e759

More about the Ig Nobels and other silly science:


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