Would you give yourself an alcohol enema for science? Test the running speed of constipated scorpions in the lab? Build your own moose crash test dummy? Or maybe you’d like to tackle the thorny question of why legal documents are so relentlessly incomprehensible. These and other extraordinary research efforts were honored tonight at a virtual ceremony to announce the recipients of the annual Ig Nobel Prizes for 2022. Yes, it’s that time of year again, when the serious and the silly converge — for science. You can watch the live stream of the award ceremony here.
Established in 1991, the Ig Nobels are a good-natured parody of the Nobel Prizes. they honor “achievements that first make people laugh and then make them think.” The unapologetic awards ceremony typically features miniature operas, science demos and 24/7 lectures, where experts must explain their work twice: once in 24 seconds and the second in just seven words. Acceptance speeches are limited to 60 seconds. And as the tagline implies, the research being honored may seem ridiculous at first glance, but that doesn’t mean it lacks scientific merit.
Viewers can tune in for the usual 24/7 lectures, as well as the premiere of a mini-opera, The Know-It-All Club, in which each member “makes it clear that there is only one person in the Know-It-All Club who knows anything” — in keeping with the night’s knowledge theme. Winners will also give free public talks in the weeks following the ceremony, which will be posted on the Improbable Research website.
Here are the winners of the 2022 Ig Nobel Prizes.
Art History Award
Reference: “Peter de Smet and Nicholas Hellmuth, for their study ‘A Multidisciplinary Approach to Ritual Enema Scenes on Ancient Maya Pottery’.”
Honestly, I could write an entire article on this fascinating 1986 paper, adapted from de Smet’s Ph.D. The study focuses on the colorful ceramics of the Maya Late Classic period (AD 600–900), which often depict palace scenes, ball games, hunting parties, and dances associated with human sacrifice (by beheading). But in 1977, scholars discovered a Mayan vase depicting the administration of an enema—and then many more.
Apparently, the Maya were known to administer medicinal enemas, but pottery scenes suggest that they may also have administered intoxicating enemas in a ritual setting. De Smet and Hellmuth analyzed the iconography on various ceramic pieces depicting enemas, as well as the linguistic glyphs that appear in these scenes. They also compiled a list of possible “ethnopharmacological” substances that the Maya may have ingested.
In the time-honored tradition of scientific self-experimentation, de Smet (a self-described “non-inhalant smoker” and “regular coffee and beer drinker”) tested the efficacy of some of the suspected substances by administering enemas to himself. . He drank an oral alcoholic preparation for comparison before separately administering a bladder. Both concoctions had about 5 percent alcohol content “as a cylinder of 20 percent alcohol content is quite irritating to the rectal tissue,” so much of the concoction had to be consumed. Intoxication levels were measured with a breathalyzer. “The results certainly support the theoretical proposition that alcohol is well absorbed from an enema,” the authors concluded.
De Smet wisely declined to administer a smoke enema himself, given the evidence of toxic side effects. Nor did he personally try psilocybin mushrooms, fly agaric, water lily (possible hallucinogen), Tsitse (Erythina alkaloids) or Toh-ku—all less likely candidates for use in the rituals depicted on the pottery. He also chose to skip the toad venom (the Bufo bufotenine alkaloid). Instead, he administered an enema of dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is closely related, finding “no discernible effect.” This is an N of 1, however, with a rather low dose. The authors recommended “further research” to expand the sample size and dose range, but did not delve into whether other intrepid researchers followed de Smet down the self-administered enema path.