Makes you laugh (but then...)

Beards and other studies. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

Kudos to Kate for bringing the subject of today’s newsletter to my attention: the 2021 Ig Nobel Prizes.

“The what?” you might ask, if you were like me up until a few days ago, and have never heard of these awards.

They’re the annual prizes awarded by the science humor magazine, Annals of Improbable Research, intended to celebrate research that makes you laugh—but then make you think.

What kinds of research? Well, let’s start with a subject that’s been near and dear to my heart since I stopped shaving at the start of the pandemic: an experiment suggesting that men may have evolved beards to avoid being punched in the face.

University of Utah scientists Ethan Beseris, Steven Naleway, and David Carrier created simulations of human faces with and without beards, then researched how much damage they endured after dropping weights on them.

Yes, it sounds like something I would have enjoyed trying in third grade, but the experiments actually resulted in a published paper in the journal Integrative Organismal Biology.

They found that the fake beards absorbed a bit of the force, resulting in less damaging (fake) injuries. Also, they theorized, beards might have obscured exactly where the jawline was, making it harder for foes to land a solid blow in just the right place.

Next up? Spanish researchers who studied nasty, already-been-chewed gum left on sidewalks to determine how bacteria-laden it was after three months. (Answer: very bacteria-laden.)

This one was published in the journal Nature. (“Our findings have implications for a wide range of disciplines, including forensics, contagious disease control, or bioremediation of wasted chewing gum residues," the scientists, from the University of Valencia, wrote.)

Other Ig Noble winners:

  • A study of “variations in purring, chirping, chattering, trilling, tweedling, murmuring, meowing, moaning, squeaking, hissing, yowling, howling, growling, and other modes of cat–human communication,” conducted by Swedish researchers.

  • Chemical analysis of the air inside movie theaters, to see if it was possible to reliably detect “the levels of violence, sex, antisocial behavior, drug use, and bad language in the movie the audience is watching” based on collective body odors.

  • An analysis of suggesting that “the obesity of a country’s politicians may be a good indicator of that country’s corruption.”

  • German, Turkish, and British research “demonstrating that sexual orgasms can be as effective as decongestant medicines at improving nasal breathing.”

  • A study about “why pedestrians do not constantly collide with other pedestrians.”

  • Research by four American entomologists on how to control cockroaches on submarines, and

  • A baker’s dozen researchers from seven countries whose combined research was about “whether it is safer to transport an airborne rhinoceros upside-down.” (Hence the bizarre photo today, courtesy of the Namibian Ministry of the Environment.)

Regarding the rhino study: this apparently comes up a lot as conservationists attempt to move rhinos to better habitats. Nobody had previously studied whether it was safe to transport the animals suspended from helicopters by their ankles.

(While tranquilized, obviously.)

"Namibia was the first country to take a step back and say, 'hey, let's study this and figure out, you know, is this a safe thing to do for rhinos?" one of the researchers told the BBC.

Yes, I laughed. And then I stopped to think. I’m just glad they’re being recognized for their efforts.


Now we reach the part of the newsletter in which, unless I forget, I often invite comments. A reader pointed out yesterday, however, that if you’re not the kind of reader who habitually clicks through, you’ll never see what others are saying. Maybe you’re not even aware you can click. So, as an experiment, here are links to the comment threads from the last few days’ worth of newsletters, just so you can see what’s going on:

It’s funny; I write this every day, but I sometimes don’t stop to think enough about what the UX looks like to you, the reader. Anyway, the blue box below takes you to the comments for today:

Leave a comment


7 other things worth your time


Thanks for reading. Photo courtesy of the Namibian government. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.