CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—For just one moment last night, you might have guessed this was a typical scientific awards ceremony. An international team of biologists led by Vlastimil Hart of the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague was describing an experiment on dogs. The researchers were trying to measure the animal's ability to detect Earth's magnetic field.
But the moment of normalcy soon passed as the team explained its experimental method. After observing 70 dogs defecate 1893 times and urinate 5582 times over a 2-year period, the researchers noticed that the dogs sometimes aligned the axis of their bodies with the geomagnetic field. As the team reported last year in Frontiers in Zoology, on days with random geomagnetic fluctuations, the dog's orientation while pooping and peeing also tended toward random. "And here's the proof!" said Hart, as he and colleagues tossed baggies of what was claimed to be the experiment's leftovers out to the audience in the packed Sanders Theatre at Harvard University. (This reporter did not check the contents.)
Of course, this was no ordinary scientific award ceremony. Hart's team was accepting one of the coveted 2014 Ig Nobel Prizes that celebrate research that "makes you laugh, and then makes you think." The prize, organized by the Annals of Improbable Research, includes $10 trillion—actually a $10 trillion bill in Zimbabwean dollars, which is worthless—handed out on stage by one of several past winners of the real Nobel Prize, including Frank Wilczek and Richard Roberts.
Many animals are known to be able to perceive magnetic fields, from pigeons to mice, but the assumed purpose is for navigation. Even if canines really can sense Earth's magnetic field, why would they align their bodies while crouching momentarily in one place? In his paper, Hart argues that dogs may be "calibrating" their inner compass. Perhaps like humans, dogs do some useful cogitation while doing their business.
Dog poop wasn't the only research to scoop a prize this year. Also recognized was a study with an enticing title that read, in part, "Seeing Jesus in toast," which was first published online this past January in the journal Cortex. If you do see Jesus, Elvis, or any other face in the random light and dark spots on a piece of toast, you are "completely normal," explained Kang Lee, a neuroscientist at the University of Toronto in Canada. The human brain seems to be so finely tuned to detect faces that most people experience pareidolia, the perception of nonexistent objects such as faces in a random signal.
To find out exactly where in the brain pareidolia arises, Kang and colleagues scanned the activity of people's brains while showing them images of light and dark pixels arranged randomly. For half of those images, the researchers told their subjects that there was a hidden face or letters. Sure enough, the subjects claimed to see the nonexistent faces and letters 34% and 38% of the time, respectively. The part of the brain that lit up with activity during those moments of pareidolia was the right fusiform face area, known to be responsible for facial recognition.
To confirm that the people's brains really were processing images of faces, the team used a technique called classification, which creates a composite image by mapping people's brain activity to different images. Eerily, a facelike classification image emerged from the collective brain activity of people experiencing pareidolia.
The other winners of this year's Ig Nobel Prizes were equally zany and creative, from a measurement of the friction between a shoe and a banana peel to the modulation of the pain caused by a burning laser while people viewed good or bad art. See the full list here.