From Healing Kisses To Idiot Speak Machine – Ten Years Of Improbable Japanese Research Ranked

Japan reached an improbably milestone at the recent 26th First Annual Ig Nobel Awards, which were handed out by the Improbable Research magazine.

It was the tenth year in a row that Japanese scientists could claim a first place prize in what has been dubbed the spoof Nobel Prizes.

The Ig Nobel prizes aims at awarding science ‘that first makes you laugh and then makes you think.’

This year’s Japanese winner certainly does that. It involves studying if objects look different if you put your head between your legs and look at them upside down.

It is undoubtedly an improbable research project – just try to imagine the scientists behind it, standing in front of the university chairs (pun intended), trying to explain what they wanted to study and how much money they would need.

But how does it stack up against the best Japanese improbably research projects of the last ten years?

Here is my – very unofficial – reverse ranking from 10 to 1 of the best Japanese Ig Nobel winners from 2007 to 2016.

#10: What are you sayyying?? (2012)

Kazutaka Kurihara and Koji Tsukada must have been having a bad day when they decided that they needed to create ‘The SpeechJammer’. It is a machine that disrupts your ability to speak coherently by making you listen to what you are saying while you are saying it – with a very slight delay. Like the worst Skype call of your life – continuously. Try it out here.

#9: Slime on the tracks (2010)

On the ninth spot we find Toshiyuki Nakagaki, Atsushi Tero, Seiji Takagi, Tetsu Saigusa, Kentaro Ito, Kenji Yumiki and Ryo Kobayashi. Alongside the UK’s Dan Bebber, Mark Fricker, they found a way of using slime mold to establish what would be the optimal routes for railroad tracks.

#8: The smart mold (2008)

Staying with the theme, 2008’s winners of the ‘Cognitive Science’ prize had also been studying mold.

Before the name dropping gets completely out of hand, let me simply say that this group of Japanese researchers, alongside Hungarian Ágotá Tóth, discovered that slime molds are actually capable of solving puzzles – probably very slowly.

I imagine that it was kind of like watching a video of a sloth trying to solve a rubrics cube. In slow motion.

#7: Pandas are the s¤%t (2009)

Another theme that seems to have intrigued Japanese scientists is dung. For example a group from the Kitasato University Graduate School of Medical Sciences in Sagamihara, Japan. They found out that kitchen refuse can be reduced by a whopping 90% in mass thanks to certain bacteria that can be extracted from giant pandas’ faecal matter.

Here’s hoping that it wasn’t a trial and error research project that started with dung from more common animals.

#6: It sure doesn’t smell like s¤%t (2007)

Two years before panda dung became a big hit, Mayu Yamamoto from the International Medical Center of Japan won a Ig Nobel prize for dinging at way to extract vanillin, which is used as vanilla fragrance and flavouring, from cow dung.

#5: Bending over to change (2016)

This year’s entry was Atsuki Higashiyama and Kohei Adachi. The pair won the Perception category with their study of whether or not things look different when you bend over and view them upside down with your head between your legs.

The short answer is yes. The slightly longer answer is that they found a correlation between perception and body position. The really long answer can be read here.

#4: Sliding – and cats (2014)

Two years ago, Japanese scientists were on a roll. Or a skid, to be precise.

The skid in question involved measuring how much friction there is between the sole of a shoe and a banana peel, compared to how much friction there was between said banana peel and the floor.

In short, they did the math (and physics) of one of the world’s oldest slapstick comedy gags.

#3: Mice go to the hospital for opera (2013)

“Assessing the effect of listening to opera, on heart transplant patients who are mice.”

As short and succinct as I think you could describe the study that won 2013’s Medicine award. Turns out that it’s really good for the mice too.

#2: That itchy kiss (2015)

Last year, Hajime Kimata shared the medicine award with a Slovakian group of scientists. Both had been studying “the biomedical benefits or biomedical consequences of intense kissing (and other intimate, interpersonal activities).”

In other words, whether or not making out is good for your health.

Sounds great and like something you might want to take part in – until you read the title of one of Kimata’s papers about the study: “Kissing Reduces Allergic Skin Wheal Responses and Plasma Neurotrophin Levels.”

#1: Holy flying wasabi! (2011)

In what has been a tighly contested race, there was always only going to be one winner. That winner is the teak of Makoto Imai, Naoki Urushihata, Hideki Tanemura, Yukinobu Tajima, Hideaki Goto, Koichiro Mizoguchi and Junichi Murakami.

They not only found a way of determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi if you were to use if to wake people, say in case of an emergency.

No, this group was not satisfied with that. They went on to invent the alarm clock from hell, aka the wasabi alarm. If you have ever eaten wasabi, try imagining having it catapulted into your face to wake you up. Yeah. Alarm clock from hell.

Actually, it is not that bad. The feeling it produces is not a burn as such, but more a gentle prodding of your nostrils.

Plus, the wasabi alarm clock also works for dead and the hard of hearing.

This process of ‘what?’, ‘They did what?’, ‘hahaha, that’s insane’, ‘wait, it actually works?, ‘who would have thought so?’. Makes it the perfect example of improbable research in my book.

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