Technology & Science

Shrew eating, penis amputation studies earn Ig Nobel prize

The work of a Canadian archaeologist who studied how a shrew would look after being eaten, digested and defecated by a human has been honoured with an Ig Nobel prize, along with research on penis amputations and how drunkenness affects perceptions of attractiveness.

Spoof awards honour research that makes people laugh

Masanori Niimi of Japan and his colleague Xiangyuan Jin, dressed as a mouse, received the 2013 Ig Nobel Medicine Prize for 'assessing the effect of listening to opera, on heart transplant patients who are mice.' (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

The work of a Canadian archaelogist who studied how a shrew would look after being eaten, digested and defecated by a human has been honoured with an Ig Nobel prize, alongside research on penis amputations and how drunkenness affects perceptions of attractiveness.

Peter Stahl, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Victoria, and his co-author Brian Crandall received one of 10 spoof science awards handed out Thursday evening to honour scientific achievements that "make people laugh, and then make them think."

Crandall accepted the 2013 Ig Nobel Archeology award in person at a comical ceremony at the Sanders Theatre at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. It was organized by the publisher of the Annals of Improbable Research, a magazine with the goal of spurring interest in science, medicine and technology.

Some of the other 2013 Ig Nobel prizes included:

  • Public Health Prize, which went to Thai researchers who described surgical techniques to manage an "epidemic of penile amputations in Siam" in 1983.
  • Psychology Prize, which went to a French-led research team confirming in 2012 that people who think they are drunk also think they are attractive.
  • Medicine Prize, which went to Japanese researchers who assessed how listening to opera affected mice who had recently had heart transplants.
  • Physics Prize, which went to researchers who reported in 2012 that some people would be physically capable of running across the surface of a pond if the pond were on the moon. The results were published in the high-ranked journal PLoS ONE.
  • Safety Engineering Prize, which went to a 1972 patent for a system that traps airplane hijackers by dropping them through trap doors, sealing them into a package, and then parachuting them out of the plane via bomb-bay doors.

'Not a big deal'

Stahl, who did not attend the ceremony, said he was surprised when Improbable Research called him about the award.

"My immediate reaction was, ‘Look, I published this almost 20 years ago. I’ve moved on.’ I said, ‘Why now?’" he recalled. He was told the research was interesting.

"Personally for me, it’s not a big deal," he said of the award. But he said he’s willing to talk about the research that earned the prize because he feels it’s important that some of his work, which is publicly funded, is "consumed — pun intended — by the public."

Stahl said his research focuses on identifying animal bones from archeological sites — including "microskeletons" belonging to very small animals such as shrews — and conducting experiments to understand what happened to them in the past to make them look the way they do in the present. For example, were they eaten by an owl? Or was a human involved in some way?

 "In 1985, there was very little on what would a human-digested microskeleton look like?" Stahl said.

He decided to find out so other scientists could compare their archeological samples to his experimental results.

They parboiled and cut up a shrew, and one of the scientists – Stahl would not disclose who, saying it wasn’t relevant — ate it without chewing, then recovered the bones from his feces.

"We know what it looked like when it went in and we see what it looked like when it came out. And then we compare to a sample … from the past," he explained.

The researchers published their results in the Journal of Archaeological Science in 1995.

He acknowledges that he hasn’t applied the results personally in the field, as he has never found any human-digested shrew skeletons at an archeological site.

He noted that he works mainly in South America, where the climate tends not to preserve that kind of evidence. He suggested that the results may have been useful to researchers that study human coprolites — preserved feces — in other parts of the world.

"It would be particularly interesting to repeat this experiment using lots of different preparation techniques — chewing or not chewing, roasting or boiling," Stahl said, adding that he had hoped his original experiment would inspire other, similar experiments.

So far, there have been some, but not many, he said.

"There’s a huge range of these kinds of studies on different animals," he said, "but there isn’t that much on humans."


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