World / Science & Health

Japanese scientists bend over forward to win an Ig Nobel prize for perception study

Kyodo, AP

Two scientists from Japan won the spoof Ig Nobel perception prize Thursday for determining that objects look smaller when viewing them bent over and between one’s legs.

Ritsumeikan University professor Atsuki Higashiyama accepted a 61-second clock, an “award paper,” and a “Zimbabwean” $10 trillion bill during the 26th Ig Nobel awards ceremony at Harvard University.

“First I want to give a demonstration by myself,” Higashiyama said from the podium, bending over to view the audience through his legs, effectively mooning them.

“When the viewer is inverted, the objects appear smaller than in a normal upright position.” Shortly afterward, the human “alarm clocks” escorted Higashiyama off the stage after he exceeded his allotted minute.

The other recipient, Kohei Adachi, a professor at Osaka University Graduate School, did not attend the ceremony.

Higashiyama and Adachi were influenced by the work of Herman von Helmholtz, a German scientist who conducted a similar perception study more than 100 years ago. Von Helmholtz also observed changes in perception while bent over.

The perception prize was one of 10 prizes awarded at this year’s Ig Nobel ceremony. The theme for this year’s contest was “time.”

The 26th annual event featured a paper airplane air raid and a tic-tac-toe contest with a brain surgeon, a rocket scientist and four real Nobel laureates.

The Ig Nobels, sponsored by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research, included research by Fredrik Sjoberg, who published three volumes about collecting hoverflies on the sparsely populated Swedish island where he lives.

It sounds downright dull, but Sjoberg’s books are a hit in his homeland, and the first volume’s English translation, “The Fly Trap,” has earned rave reviews.

“I had written books for 15 years (read by no one) when I finally understood it’s a good thing to write about something you really know, no matter what that might be,” Sjoberg said in an email, describing the award as the pinnacle of his career.

“The Ig Nobel Prize beats everything,” he said. “At last I hope to become a rock star. Leather pants, dark sunglasses, groupies. All that.”

Ahmed Shafik decided rats needed pants.

He dressed his rodents in polyester, cotton, wool and polyester-cotton blend pants to determine the different textiles’ effects on sex drive. The professor at Cairo University in Egypt, who died in 2007, found that rats that wore polyester or polyester blend pants displayed less sexual activity, perhaps because of the electrostatic charges created by polyester. Shafik suggested that the results could be applied to humans.

The study did not explain how he measured a rat’s waist and inseam.

Charles Foster, a fellow at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, won for literally living like an animal.

He spent months mimicking a badger, otter, fox, deer and bird in an attempt to see the world through their eyes, then wrote a book about his experiences called “Being a Beast.”

He lived as a badger in a hole in a Welsh hillside; rummaged like a fox through trash cans in London’s East End looking for scraps of chicken tikka masala and pepperoni pizza; and was tracked by bloodhounds through the Scottish countryside to learn what it’s like to be a deer.

It wasn’t much fun. “I was hunted down quite quickly,” he said.

Andreas Sprenger was part of a team at the University of Luebeck in Germany that found that if you have an itch on one arm, you can relieve it by looking in a mirror and scratching the opposite arm.

Sound silly?

But imagine, Sprenger said via email, if you have a skin condition with an intolerable itch, you can scratch the other arm to relieve it without rubbing the affected arm raw.

Gordon Logan, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, and colleagues from Canada and Europe won for their research on lying.

Their study of more than 1,000 people aged between 6 and 77 — “From junior to senior Pinocchio: A cross-sectional life span investigation of deception” — found that young adults are the best liars.

How do the scientists know their subjects weren’t lying to them?

“We don’t,” Logan said.