A rhino hanging upside down, with a man in the foreground

‘Upside-Down Rhinos’ Study Is Latest Big Red Research to Win an Ig Nobel

Alumni and faculty have won a half-dozen of the awards, which honor top-flight academic work that’s a bit odd or eccentric

There’s the Nobel Prize—and then there’s the Ig Nobel Prize. Founded three decades ago as an offbeat alternative to the august award from Sweden, the prize celebrates distinguished academic forays into topics that veer toward the eccentric. Its slogan is “research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.” And according to the latest Cornellian winner—Vet Professor Robin Radcliffe—that’s an apt description for his team’s project.

“When you see a rhino hanging upside down, it’s a little bit comical,” he admits. “But it makes you wonder, and then you start to think—and I’m glad that it’s making people think, because our research is actually serious. Rhinos are highly endangered.”

Wait: upside-down rhinoceri?

Radcliffe and three colleagues (Vet College faculty Julia Felippe, PhD ’02, and Robin Gleed, and statistician Stephen Parry) won a 2021 Ig Nobel for their work in Namibia on methods of relocating black rhinos—which is often vital to protect the critically endangered species from poachers.

Three men with a rhino who is hung upside down
Examining a rhino in mid-transport as part of a study on the technique’s health impacts. (Photo courtesy of Robin Radcliffe)

While the rhinos had typically been moved in trucks, that’s not possible when they need to go to isolated areas—so local conservationists were employing helicopters, with the tranquilized animals slung upside down by their legs. And the results, while funny-looking, were encouraging: compared to truck transport, fewer of the rhinos were lost to anesthesia complications. Radcliffe and his colleagues helped explain why.

“Most other animals, when you hang them upside down, it’s usually not good for their respiration,” Radcliffe says. “I think the reason it’s different in rhinos is they have a big head that acts as kind of a counterweight to the rest of their body; it stretches out the neck, which opens the airway. It also straightens the spine, which eliminates other concerns about having an animal upside down.”

And how do you bring an inverted, flying rhino back to earth? Says Radcliffe: “The pilots are really good at making a soft landing—and we run around underneath the helicopter with a big mattress to cushion them.”

Serious research

The logo of the Ig Nobels is a twist on Rodin’s The Thinker, depicting the famed statue toppled off its pedestal
The Stinker, the Ig Nobel’s logo. (Image provided)

The logo of the Ig Nobel is a twist on Rodin’s The Thinker, depicting the famed statue toppled off its pedestal … and renamed The Stinker. And, yes, the projects it honors may seem a tad silly at first glace—but the award is definitely not the scientific equivalent of the Razzies (the anti-Oscars, given to the year’s worst films and performances). It goes to solid, peer-reviewed studies by well-respected scientists.

And, in fact, one person has won both the Ig and the original: Russian physicist Andre Geim took home the 2010 Nobel Prize for “groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene”—a decade after winning the Ig for using magnets to levitate a frog. “And he tells people,” Radcliffe notes, “that he values each prize equally.”

 Our team is super excited. We’ve gotten so much exposure for rhino conservation that we wouldn’t have otherwise.

Veterinarian Robin Radcliffe

Radcliffe and his colleagues were similarly thrilled with their Ig Nobel. “Our team is super excited,” he says. “We’ve gotten so much exposure for rhino conservation that we wouldn’t have otherwise. To get this recognition is wonderful.”

Other Ig Nobel-winning projects by Cornellian researchers include:

The ouch of bee stings

As a grad student in neurobiology and behavior, Michael Smith, PhD ’17, won a 2015 Ig Nobel for a project in which he tested the relative pain of being stung—by letting bees sting him on various parts of his body about 200 times. He now heads the Smith Bee Lab at Auburn University

How does your ponytail flow?

Physicist Raymond Goldstein, PhD ’88, and colleagues won a 2012 Ig Nobel for calculating the balance of forces that shape and move human hair in a ponytail. On the University of Cambridge faculty, Goldstein has numerous other honors including the 2016 Batchelor Prize, given by the International Union of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics, for research on active matter fluid mechanics.

In praise of procrastination

Creating the “Theory of Structured Procrastination” won a 2011 Ig Nobel for John Perry, PhD ’68, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Stanford. It states that if you tend to procrastinate, you can still get things done; just use a somewhat-less-important project as a way of avoiding one that’s even more important. (That way, you still accomplish something valuable.) The following year, Perry published The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging, and Postponing.

The invisible gorilla

In work—detailed in a paper titled “Gorillas in Our Midst: Sustained Inattentional Blindness for Dynamic Events”—that won a 2004 Ig Nobel, Daniel Simons, PhD ’97, demonstrated that when people pay close attention to something, it’s easy to overlook other things—even someone wearing a gorilla suit. Simons is a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

A twist on the ‘Peter Principle’

The familiar principle holds that job promotions ultimately result in people rising to the level of their incompetence; two Cornellians explored how bad we may be at assessing our own abilities. David Dunning, now a professor emeritus of psychology, and Justin Kruger, PhD ’99, won a 2000 Ig Nobel for describing what has since become known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect: a form of cognitive bias in which people who aren’t particularly adept at a task overestimate their ability, while those who are good at something underestimate their own skills.

Top image: Transporting a critically endangered black rhino. (Photo courtesy of the Namibian Ministry of the Environment, Forestry, and Tourism)

Published November 5, 2021


Comments

  1. George Jay Mendelson, Class of 1967

    There is clearly nothing ignoble about the Ig-Nobel. Indeed, I would contend that Ig-Nobels are far more valuable than their ‘pseudo-nymic’ namesakes.
    Ig-Nobels are more readily accessible and understandable to ordinary people.
    One does not need a Ph.D. to appreciate an Ig-Noble.

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