Ig Nobel prizes reward study on why luck, not talent, leads to success

The spoof awards, which are handed out by real Nobel laureates, also highlighted work about ritual anal injections by the Maya civilization, and the deadly constipation of scorpions that lose their tails

Maya ceramic sculpture found in Guatemala depicting an enema ritual.
Maya ceramic sculpture found in Guatemala depicting an enema ritual.LACMA

“The harder I work, the luckier I get,” said the statistician George Edward Pelham Box. Like him, dozens of scientists, including Albert Einstein (who is credited with having said: “God does not play dice with the universe”) have always defended that success is not random.

But three Italian scientists question this theory and believe that it is not the most talented people who succeed, but the luckiest. Their research has been distinguished, along with a dozen other studies, with the Ig Nobel, annual spoof awards that are into their 32nd edition. Organizers say the Ig Nobel Prizes “honor achievements that make people laugh, then think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative – and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.”

Two of the Italian scientists, who won in the Economics category, are in fact receiving an Ig Nobel for the second time: in 2010 they won the satirical award for “mathematically demonstrating that organizations would become more efficient if they promoted people at random.”

The Ig Nobel has been awarded for 32 years by the magazine Annals of Improbable Research to studies that have been published and reviewed by prestigious scientific journals. The ceremony is usually held at Harvard University with the presence of real Nobel Prize winners, but this year, for the third time, the event has been virtual. The winners will receive a a $10 trillion bill from Zimbabwe, a currency that disappeared in 2015 and would be worth less than 30 cents today.

Question of luck. Rarely does the same team win two Ig Nobel Prizes. However, this year the jury has considered that work, and not luck, makes Alessandro Pluchino and Andrea Rapisarda deserving of a new award for insisting that luck is a better determinant of success than talent.

“Our model shows that, if it is true that a certain degree of talent is needed to be successful in life, the most talented people hardly ever reach the top, being surpassed by moderately talented, but sensibly luckier individuals,” said the authors, who this year have been joined by Alessio Emanuele Biondo.

Mayan edema. A Euro-American team has been distinguished with the prize in the Art History category for its multidisciplinary approach to the ritual injection of a liquid in the rectum by members of the Mesoamerican civilization. The authors based their work on scenes depicted in classic pottery that, according to the study, “undoubtedly indicates that the ancient Mayans took intoxicating enemas in a ritual context.” The research uses this finding to refute “the traditional view that the ancient Maya were a contemplative people” and ensure that, on the contrary, “they gave themselves over to ritual ecstasy.”

Scorpions without anuses. Brazil joins the awards with research that reaches a widely expected conclusion. Scorpions resort to autotomy, the voluntary separation of part of their body to escape predators. Those of the genus Ananteris lose the last abdominal segments, representing up to 25% of their body mass, including the anus, which does not regenerate. The consequence is clear: “It prevents defecation and leads to constipation.” And it seems that the strategy is not as effective as might be expected because neither males nor females gain speed with the decrease in body mass. Death due to an inability to defecate comes after a few months, but until then scorpions can still, if they feel up to it, “find partners and breed.”

Love is a thing of the heart. One of Nature’s subsidiary journals has published another award-winning study this year, which proves that those who point to the heart as the organ of love are correct. According to this work, carried out with binoculars and physiological measurement devices during real blind dates outside the laboratory, “the overt signals [of an initial romance], such as smiling, laughing, looking at or imitating these signals, are not significantly associated with attraction.” To know if everything is going well, according to the researchers, it is necessary to wear a heart rate and skin conductivity meter. The synchrony of the heart rhythm and the epithelial response, “covert, unconscious and difficult to regulate,” are the true indicators of the success of the date. These signals increase or decrease depending on the levels of “subconscious arousal.”

Ice cream as therapy. A Polish team has been awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine for testing commercially available ice cream brands to prevent oral mucositis, ulcers that form in the mouth as a side effect of chemotherapy. This “ice cream cryotherapy,” as the researchers define it, was effective in 13 of the 52 patients who received it. “It could be used as a cost-effective, less expensive and easy to implement method in the prevention of oral mucositis,” the authors state.

All the ducklings went swimming. Two groups have raised fundamental questions: “Why do ducklings swim in formation? How much energy does each specimen save by doing so?” And the conclusions are up to the task: “By traversing the wake generated by the mother, the duckling that follows her obtains a significant reduction in resistance to the waves and experiences a destructive interference phenomenon.” That is, the duckling is pushed forward. This study is the first to reveal the energy savings for the members of the formation.

In honor of the Marx Brothers. The Ig Nobels also have a Literature prize. This year the recipients were the authors of a study that shows that bad writing, and not the use of jargon, is what makes legal texts unreadable. Researchers analyzed 10 million words used in contracts and found that they contained “surprisingly high proportions of hard-to-process [linguistic] features.” The conclusions are not surprising either: the worst-written texts are more poorly understood and remembered less well.

Honest and dishonest gossip. “Gossip can be positive or negative, depending on the type of rumor that is spread,” says Mónica Ojeda of the University of Seville in Spain. Ojeda has established a formula for the gossiper to know when and what information to share for personal gain. The key lies in the degree of coincidence between gossip and reality.

Digital engineering and a rubber moose. Two Asian studies looked at how many fingers are required to turn a given object. The larger the size, the more fingers are used. The researchers say that the data is useful for designing lids and “unraveling the characteristics of the skills of the human fingers,” although they admit that other conditioning factors such as the shape, height and materials used to make the objects still remain to be studied. Finally, also in the field of engineering, a Swedish study has been distinguished for designing a moose crash-test dummy with 116 rubber plates. The objective is to analyze the impact produced by collisions with these animals, which could extend to other big wildlife.

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