Vibrating worm wins Aus researchers 2020 Ig Nobel Prize

Monday, 21 September, 2020

Vibrating worm wins Aus researchers 2020 Ig Nobel Prize

Vibrating a slightly inebriated earthworm on a subwoofer speaker in a rural Victorian backyard shed has landed Dr Ivan Maksymov and Andrey Pototsky, both from Swinburne University of Technology, the 2020 Ig Nobel Physics Prize.

Run out of Harvard University and presented by Improbable Research, the satirical Ig Nobel Prizes have been awarded every year since 1991 for research that first makes people laugh, then makes them think. The Swinburne researchers won the Ig Nobel Physics Prize for determining, experimentally, what happens to the shape of a living earthworm when one vibrates the earthworm at high frequency.

The Swinburne study was inspired by a hypothesis from a Danish scientist that the human brain not only functions using nerved-based electric pulses, but also acousto-mechanical (or soundwave) signals. The results of the vibrating worm experiment, published in the journal Scientific Reports, thus open up the opportunity to explore new ways of interacting with the brain.

“The ability to excite nonlinear subharmonic body waves in a living organism could be used to probe, and potentially to control, important biophysical processes such as the propagation of nerve impulses, thereby opening up avenues for addressing biological questions of fundamental impact,” the researchers wrote.

The experiment was conducted in Dr Maksymov’s backyard shed due to the COVID-19 lockdown in Victoria. He added, “Earthworms were used because they are cheap, don’t require ethics approval, and their axons are somewhat similar to mammalian nerve fibres. Plus, one can easily anaesthetise a worm using vodka.”

The Physics Prize was one of 10 Ig Nobel Prizes awarded in 2020, all of which were presented virtually via webcast. Other 2020 awards were as follows:

  • Acoustics Prize: Stephan Reber, Takeshi Nishimura, Judith Janisch, Mark Robertson and Tecumseh Fitch, for inducing a female Chinese alligator to bellow in an airtight chamber filled with helium-enriched air.
  • Psychology Prize: Miranda Giacomin and Nicholas Rule, for devising a method to identify narcissists by examining their eyebrows.
  • Peace Prize: The governments of India and Pakistan, for having their diplomats surreptitiously ring each other’s doorbells in the middle of the night and then run away before anyone had a chance to answer the door.
  • Economics Prize: Christopher Watkins, Juan David Leongómez, Jeanne Bovet, Agnieszka Żelaźniewicz, Max Korbmacher, Marco Antônio Corrêa Varella, Ana Maria Fernandez, Danielle Wagstaff and Samuela Bolgan, for trying to quantify the relationship between different countries’ national income inequality and the average amount of mouth-to-mouth kissing.
  • Management Prize: Xi Guang-An, Mo Tian-Xiang, Yang Kang-Sheng, Yang Guang-Sheng and Ling Xian Si, five professional hitmen who managed a contract for a hit job by subcontracting the task to each other (from Xi Guang-An to Mo Tian-Xiang, to Yang Kang-Sheng, etc), with each subsequently enlisted hitman receiving a smaller percentage of the fee and nobody actually performing a murder.
  • Entomology Prize: Richard Vetter, for collecting evidence that many entomologists (scientists who study insects) are afraid of spiders, which are not insects.
  • Medicine Prize: Nienke Vulink, Damiaan Denys and Arnoud van Loon, for diagnosing the long-unrecognised medical condition known as misophonia — the distress at hearing other people make chewing sounds.
  • Medical Education Prize: Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom, Narendra Modi of India, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, Donald Trump of the USA, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow of Turkmenistan, for using the COVID-19 viral pandemic to teach the world that politicians can have a more immediate effect on life and death than scientists and doctors can.
  • Materials Science Prize: Metin Eren, Michelle Bebber, James Norris, Alyssa Perrone, Ashley Rutkoski, Michael Wilson and Mary Ann Raghanti, for showing that knives manufactured from frozen human faeces do not work well.

Image credit: © R.

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