AUSTIN, Texas—The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Conference is an inherently serious event, filled with cutting-edge research from some of the world’s brightest scientific minds. But after hours, like any good conference, people in attendance can loosen their figurative ties… and have a good chuckle considering whether cats are liquids or solids.
That kind of Saturday-night-ready research is the trademark of the Annals of Improbable Research, the journal and organization behind the yearly First Annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. That event has long been an Ars favorite as it honors research "that makes you laugh, then think" about topics like why dog fleas jump better than cat ones and why humans stink at carrying coffee. And at the latest AAAS conference in Texas earlier this month, the Improbable Research team brought together both visiting and Texas-local Ig recipients to elaborate on their award-winning research.
Play your didgeridoo, Blue
The night started like any good research presentation does—with a musical performance. Alex Suarez, the 2017 Ig Nobel Peace Prize winner, took the stage in his traditional performance robe and unleashed his custom didgeridoo on an unexpecting audience. Suarez and his colleagues took home last year’s award by publishing a study on how didgeridoo playing could be used to help treat sleep apnea (British Medical Journal 2006).
"I got my second sleep apnea diagnosis from my doctor," Suarez said. "The first diagnosis was done by my wife."
As he struggled to find a solution, Suarez started wondering if the vibrations of didgeridoo play might be able to address or loosen up the blockages causing his apnea. So his research began with self-treatment. Eventually, he set up clinical trials in Zurich and Baltimore, and MRIs showed the custom didgeridoo Suarez had created could reduce obstructions when played in a certain way.
"[The research] is not the point," he said when asked about why he received the Peace Prize instead of one in medicine. "I now avoid the pressure to discuss this every morning with my wife and brought silent sleep to the bedroom masses."
His didgeridoo/apnea quest continues today, as Suarez notes that 50 percent of people snore and roughly 10 percent of that population could suffer apnea. The scientist is in the process of developing and trialling something he calls the Snadoo, a didgeridoo-like instrument even more fine-tuned for potential treatment (making it potentially helpful to those who have trouble swallowing or suffer from asthma, too). And as a bonus, the Snadoo is synced with an app that can provide feedback on an individual’s playing for maximum treatment—plus, it’s much more compact than the real thing.
"The resonance of a real didgeridoo is much stronger," Suarez said when asked why he’s developing a similar but smaller instrument today. "If you play a real didgeridoo in an apartment building, the four or five apartments around you would listen, too."
The biological balance of pregnant women
University of Texas professor Liza Shapiro couldn’t make it to the Ig Nobels back when her work won the Physics Prize in 2009, so she happily took the opportunity to present to an Improbable Research crowd for the first time. Shapiro and her colleagues took home accolades for a 2007 paper published in Nature, "Fetal load and the evolution of lumbar lordosis in bipedal hominins."
Or, as it was headlined for this event: "Why pregnant women don’t tip over."
"Make sure to thank your mother for bearing your load," she said. "And thank mothers for all time."
Bipedalism is a key distinguishing feature of hominins, and the lumbar curve in the lower back remains a distinguishing feature of humans. It helps us balance by better shifting upper body mass over our hips and feet, leading Shapiro and her colleagues to an obvious question: how does pregnancy change that?
The team conducted a trial with pregnant volunteers, hooking them up to motion-capture sensors. Shapiro and co. tracked changes in posture over time using women who stood against a wall as a control. In the end, they were able to identify specific anatomical features that compensate for a shifting center of mass—to simplify, there’s some sexual dimorphism in the spine where females have more flexible vertebrae—and the team traced these features all the way back to the Australopithecus species. (No, your vertebrae in no way impact intelligence or aptitude in science, Shapiro reinforced.)
Back when the study first gained attention, there was a bit of hope that the team would do a similar analysis on the newly announced Ardipithecus skeletons, which seem to be even less specialized for standing upright. But Shapiro says the number one question she has gotten since publishing is different—in light of the more flexible vertebrae, what’s the impact of a male beer belly? She joked this is clearly a future Ig Nobel topic waiting in plain sight, and then an audience member came forward during the Q&A to confirm a hypothesis.
"I have a bit of a belly and recently went to the doctor," the potbellied researcher shared. "I can confirm shearing does occur."
A dinosaur by any other name
"It’s always a pleasure to talk fishing or Barney," Ed Theriot said when taking the stage. "Does anyone want to talk fishing?"
Alas, with a big purple dinosaur in the news again after all these years, Theriot took the AAAS stage to discuss what remains his most cited paper, "Evidence of Convergence in Hominid Evolution" (Annals of Improbable Research 1995). The University of Texas professor remains infamous for his taxonomy of Barney.
"In February 1994, we observed on television an animal which was there identified as a dinosaur, Barney," the paper begins. "Its behavioral characteristics suggested that it was dissimilar to the diverse dinosaurian faunas that are so well documented." Theriot puts it bluntly today: "We were suspicious he was a dinosaur, because if he was we’d suspect he’d eat those children."
As Theriot tells it, the team went out to observe Barney in the wild—at a local mall. It set up "unexposed X-ray film plates" decoratively around the specimen’s outpost. Upon review, "the skeleton is not that of a reptile, but it is clearly hominid both in morphometry and distribution of osteological elements," Theriot and his colleagues wrote. "In fact, it is indistinguishable from the skeleton of Homo."
Taking their findings back to begin a proper taxonomy, the team felt unsatisfied with Barney’s mammalian traits. So, they continued with what Theriot called the "only 100-percent honest terms of analysis" ever published:
This still does not explain the taxonomic relationship of Barney to other vertebrates. To examine this, we compared various physical characters of Barney with the characters of other mammals, reptiles, birds, and fish. We selected characters based on their affinities across the spectrum of vertebrates. We added or discarded characters until we achieved the results we believed, then stopped.
Barney was compared to humans, whales, ornithischian and saurischian dinosaurs, and birds. In the cladistic diagrams our outgroups are live and dead salmon. We compared Barney to the outgroups of live and dead salmon. We correctly predicted that Barney was very unlike a live salmon, but we were very surprised to find that the tree comparing Barney to a dead salmon (Fig. 2) was more parsimonious even than the tree which grouped Barney with the dinosaurs.
Thus, Theriot and his team proved their initial hypothesis was correct—Barney was definitively not a dinosaur and in fact had more in common with a dead salmon. The findings earned Theriot a 15-minute segment on Canadian Discovery Channel ("It was a tacit approval from PBS," he said), a place in the Best of The Annals of Improbable Research book, and a spot in the group’s hall of fame. Well, technically, that’s where an old presentation prop of Theriot’s currently sits on display: his Barney talks previously involved a "juvenile stage Barney preserved in formaldehyde."
Listing image by Nathan Mattise