Awards for voodoo doll and rollercoaster studies at the annual Ig Nobels

Can torturing a voodoo doll help improve supervisor-employee relationships? According to research led by Lindie Liang of Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada, the act of retaliation against a bad supervisor can help disgruntled employees feel like justice is being done, and the work recently won an Ig Nobel prize.

voodooThe Ig Nobel awards “honour achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.” A parody of the prestigious Nobel prize, the name is a pun on ‘ignoble’, and awards scientific work that may be characterised as such. The awards were created in 1991, and previous awards include the 1993 literature prize for a medical research paper with one hundred times as many authors as pages; the 2004 biology prize for work which showed that herrings communicate by farting, and the 2015 chemistry prize for the invention of a chemical recipe which could partially un-boil an egg.

The awards have gained notoriety for celebrating unusual work, and some researchers hold both a Nobel and an Ig Nobel prize. Nature have called the awards “arguably the highlight of the scientific calendar”.

The 28th awards were held on Thursday 13th September 2018, and included a biology prize for scientists who determined that wine experts can determine the presence of a single fly, by smell, in a glass of wine; a medicine prize for urologists whose work used rollercoasters to hasten the passage of kidney stones; a reproductive medicine prize for researchers who used postage stamps to monitor the function of the male sexual organ; and a nutrition prize for determining the calorific intake of a human-cannibalism diet.

The awards show that science doesn’t have to be boring or hard to understand. Let’s continue to celebrate unusual work that makes us think.


Gender bias leading to lack of autism diagnosis for thousands of girls and women

There is growing evidence that women and girls with autism are going without diagnosis due to it being viewed as a ‘male condition’.

autismUntil recently, it was thought that Asperger’s syndrome, part of the autism spectrum but without intellectual impairments, mainly affected boys and men. A 2009 survey of adults living in England found that 1.8% of men and boys surveyed had a diagnosis of autism, compared to 0.2% of women and girls. However, recent studies have found a ratio of 3:1. What is the cause of this large discrepancy?

Currently, diagnostic procedures are tailored towards identifying traits typically seen in males. Recent studies have highlighted the differences in how autism presents in girls and women compared to boys and men, and could help to improve diagnoses rates. It has also been suggested that women and girls may have improved abilities to mask the condition. Media representation of the condition, such as the 1998 movie Rain Man and the 2017 Netflix show Atypical, has focused mainly on men, limiting awareness of how the condition affects females and reducing the likelihood of parents or teachers identifying it.

The National Autistic Society state on their website that ‘at least one in three autistic adults are experiencing severe mental health difficulties due to a lack of support’, and that ‘63% of children on the autism spectrum are not in the kind of school their parents believe would best support them’. Without an official diagnosis, it may be harder for women to get the help they need to function, and for young girls to get support with their education. Hopefully, new research on gender differences in the autistic spectrum will allow awareness of the prominence of this condition in women and girls to continue to rise.


Lost narwhal joins pod of beluga whales

Researchers in Canada have reported an unusual discovery: a narwhal that appears to have been adopted by a pod of beluga whales.


Narwhals typically live in the Arctic, more than 1000 km from where this juvenile was spotted. The animals were filmed by drone, technology which has allowed scientists and wildlife photographers unprecedented access into the secret lives of animals. The belugas were seen rubbing against the narwhal as they swam together, despite the spotted grey narwhal standing out from the white belugas.

Beluga whales and narwhals are closely related, but it is rare for them to interact. Unlike most belugas which live further north, another branch remained in the St. Lawrence River after the last ice age. The narwhal has been recorded in the St. Lawrence Estuary since 2016, but interactions between the narwhal and belugas had not been observed until recently. The question now is what the future holds for this unusual family: cross-breeding between the species is rare, although it has been documented previously.

Earlier this year, beluga whales were the focus of a study which demonstrated that they appear to value culture, their ancestral roots and family ties. Who knows what we will discover next about these sophisticated creatures.

Check out this video to see the narwhal and belugas together! 


By Isobel Tibbetts

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