June 11, 2024
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Captain Obvious and the Upside-Down Rhino

Every year, I write about the Ig Nobel Prizes, which is a real ceremony that hands out awards for scientific studies that at first seem ridiculous, but then when you think about them, seem obvious.

For example, the biology prize this year went to Suzanne Schötz of Sweden, who studied her multiple cats to figure out how they were communicating with her. Or, in the words of the Ig Nobel Prize committee, “for analyzing variations in purring, chirping, chattering, trilling, tweeting, murmuring, meowing, moaning, squeaking, hissing, yowling, howling, and other modes of cat-human communication.”

I didn’t even know there were multiple sounds. I thought it was just meow. (Source: kindergarten.)

In fact, everyone says that the sound a cat makes is meow, but if you think about it, that’s ridiculous. That’s like saying that the sound a human makes is hello. Maybe if we continue a conversation with them, they make other sounds.

And actually, I heard somewhere that cats meow only around humans. Which is weird, because we only meow around cats. It’s like this third bridging language that neither of us speaks. Like the cats say afterward, “I wonder what meow means.” Some random cat once accidentally said, “Meow,” and now humans say, “Meow,” because they heard from other humans that this is what cats say, and cats repeat it.

The ecology prize this year went to researchers in Spain and Iran for using genetic analysis to identify the different species of bacteria that reside in wads of discarded chewing gum stuck on pavements in five different countries.

That whole sentence is nasty.

What they learned is that people in every country, regardless of genetics, leave gum on sidewalks, and that’s gross. Why is this a universal thing? Five countries!

So the researchers collected bacteria from discarded chewing gum over the course of three months, using chisels, and monitored how it changed over time. And the conclusion they came to was that they had to lie down.

Anyway, they found that over the course of a few weeks, the kinds of microbes found in recently-chewed gum give way to microbes found in the surrounding environment.

STUDY BENEFITS: Archeology. But not yet.

Also, according to them, “This research can be applied in forensic medicine or for the control of contagious diseases.” Like if a new worldwide pandemic comes out, scientists can say, “Don’t put that gum in your mouth. The bacteria stays on for weeks.” And everyone else can say, “Scientists don’t know what they’re talking about! It’s a new virus!”

But not every study is as obvious as it seems. The transportation prize this year went to a team of scientists in Africa “for determining by experiment whether it’s safer to airlift a rhinoceros upside-down.”

Safer for whom?

Okay, some background: Basically, there’s this species of rhinos that’s facing serious threats to its population, so the African governments have taken to occasionally relocating them to other regions.

So the governments get a helicopter with a long rope underneath, and they use that to carry the rhinos around, one at a time, and the benefit is that when the rhino freaks out, it’s at the bottom of this rope so there’s really not much it can do. But just in case, they tranquilize it. They also fit it with transmitter chips, “So conservationists can monitor its welfare at its new location.” But mostly I think it’s in case they drop it.

This is all a very expensive process, because they actually need two helicopters. First they need a small helicopter to chase the rhino and shoot tranquilizers at it. And then you need a second helicopter that’s able to lift this rhino, because the smaller helicopter cannot. And helicopters charge by the hour apparently.

So originally, they were lifting each rhino on a pallet. This takes time, because you have to lay it down perfectly, and you have to daven that the rhino doesn’t wake up in the middle. So what they’ve been doing recently is that they tie four ropes to its legs and they tell the helicopter to fly upwards really fast, and they hope the rhino flips over and doesn’t just do a split.

And after 10 years of doing this, the scientists said, “Hey, should we maybe just make sure that doing this is better for the rhinos and not just for the people?”

So what they did was they suspended 12 rhinos upside down about five feet from the ground and ran some tests, and they concluded that it actually is better to transport them upside down.

STUDY BENEFITS: I would also say we should see if this works the same for humans. It has to be better than the way we’re currently flying.

And here’s another that’s not so obvious: The Ig Nobel Peace Prize this year went to researchers David Carrier, Ethan Beseris, and Steven Naleway for testing their hypothesis that beards were created to protect people from punches to the face.

Which could explain why it’s men who have beards. It also might explain why we’re told not to shave during periods of increased sinas chinam.

Personally, I thought the purpose of beards was to help people think. In my experience, people with beards seem to fight less. But maybe that’s because other people don’t want to start up.

Though it would explain why Esav was such a hairy dude.

To test this theory, the researchers continuously punched each other both with and without beards.

Just kidding. They punched sheep instead. Not real sheep. They created a synthetic human bone structure and covered it in sheepskin. Then—because the only way to guarantee that the hit would be the same every time was to use gravity—they dropped rhinos on it.

Anyway, what they found was that a beard absorbs 37% of the force of the blow, provided your beard is made of sheepskin.

Beards: They’re not just for bookmarks anymore.

Carrier now wonders whether beards might also act as visual obscurants, making it harder to target the jaw in a fistfight. Also, in some cases, the stomach.


Mordechai Schmutter is a freelance writer and a humor columnist for Hamodia and other magazines. He has also published eight books and does stand-up comedy. You can contact him at [email protected].

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