Home > Blog > Men 'grew beards to stop being punched in the face', and other whacky science research

Men 'grew beards to stop being punched in the face', and other whacky science research

If lockdown wasn't incentive enough to grow some facial hair, the hypothesis that humans evolved beards to protect themselves from punches to the face has been tested, and its findings awarded an Ig Nobel Peace Prize.Men 'grew beards to stop being punched in the face', and other whacky science research

  • The Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded yearly for unusual scientific achievements
  • Research into transporting rhinos, bacteria in chewing gum, and breathing was recognised this year
  • The prizes were presented to the winners by genuine Nobel laureates

The Ig Nobels celebrate science that "first makes people laugh, and then think", and are organised by US publication the Annals of Improbable Research.

Ten prizes are given annually for legitimate research in areas like psychology, acoustics, economics and physics.

This year's winners were awarded a $10,000,000,000,000 bill from Zimbabwe, and a PDF document that can be printed and assembled to make a three-dimensional gear with teeth (the gear teeth are pictures of human teeth).

The Ig Nobel Peace Prize was given to a trio of scientists in America who found that human beards protect vulnerable regions of the facial skeleton from damaging strikes.

"Because facial hair is one of the most sexually dimorphic features of humans and is often perceived as an indicator of masculinity and social dominance, human facial hair has been suggested to play a role in male contest competition," they wrote in the journal Integrative Organismal Biology.

"These observations are all consistent with the hypothesis that beards evolved to enhance fighting performance by providing protection to vulnerable aspects of the face ... a fractured mandible, prior to modern surgical methods, likely represented a relatively grave facial injury.

"We hypothesised that beards protect the skin and bones of the face when human males fight by absorbing and dispersing the energy of a blunt impact."

To test this hypothesis, the scientists modelled human bone tissue using a short fibre epoxy composite bone analog, and covered it in sheepskin samples from domestic sheep to mimic human beards.

While sheep fleece is not a perfect match for the hair from human beards, "the volume of follicles in our fleece samples did approximate the volume of full beards, which is unlikely to be true for the pelts of most other species," the researchers said.

The hair of the sheepskin samples was either trimmed, plucked completely, or left furred in all its glory at a length of about 8 centimetres, to best mimic the facial states of human males.

Then, a "drop-weight impact test" was performed on 20 samples from varying heights.Men 'grew beards to stop being punched in the face', and other whacky science research

The furred samples absorbed the impact more slowly, and provided more protection than the plucked or sheared samples.

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The scientists concluded that "hair is indeed capable of significantly reducing the force of impact from a blunt strike and absorbing energy, thereby reducing the incidence of failure".

If the same is true for humans, having a full beard may help protect vulnerable parts of the face, such as the jaw, from damaging punches or strikes.

Presumably, full beards could also reduce injury, cuts and bruises to the skin and muscle of the face, they said.

So, what other research was awarded a prize?

Can you tell a politician's corruption by their weight?

Pavlo Blavatskyy, a professor at the Montpellier School of Business in France, was awarded the Economics Prize for discovering that the obesity of a country's politicians may be a good indicator of that country's corruption.

He analysed 299 facial images of cabinet ministers from 15 post-Soviet states including Armenia, Russia and Ukraine, who were in office in 2017.

"For each image, the minister's body-mass index is estimated using a computer vision algorithm," he wrote in the journal Economics of Transition and Institutional Change.

"We found that the median ministers' body-mass index (estimated from frontal face images) is highly correlated with conventional measures of corruption (based on perception surveys among foreign experts)."

There were five conventional measures of perceived corruption used here, including the Basel Institute of Governance Basel Anti-Money Laundering Index, and the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.

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Professor Blavatskyy also noted that the estimated BMI of the ministers in the dataset was "generally quite high".

"This suggests that latent grand political corruption is literally visible from the photographs of top public officials."

According to this research, the least corrupt post-Soviet states were Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Georgia, while the most corrupt were three Central Asian countries: Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Professor Blavatskyy suggested this BMI method could be used retrospectively, and in places where foreign experts have limited access.

"Our proposed methodology is widely applicable across countries as photographic data of top public officials are relatively accessible in traditional mass media and social media," he said.

Is it safer to transport an airborne rhinoceros upside down?

It's an answer to a question you never knew you had.

A team of scientists from Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Brazil, the UK and the US were awarded the Transportation Prize for determining, by experiment, whether it's safer to transport an airborne rhinoceros upside down.

The transportation of rhinoceroses is a solution to a serious problem.

Poaching is a huge threat to the wild black rhinoceros population in South Africa, and to protect them, rhinos are often captured and relocated.

But navigating the rhino's rugged living terrain makes translocation by truck impractical or impossible - so, they're airlifted.

Being airlifted requires the use of opiods to tranquilise the rhinos - but this method carries with it serious complications like hypoventilation, hypoxemia (insufficient oxygen), hypercapnea (too much CO2), hypertension (high blood pressure) and acidemia (a build-up of acid in the blood).

So, the scientists wanted to see if the way the rhinos were airlifted could exacerbate the effects of these opiods.Men 'grew beards to stop being punched in the face', and other whacky science research

"Because there is a paucity of physiological information on airlifted rhinoceros, the first aim of this study was to collect measurements on black rhinoceroses suspended by their feet from a crane to mimic the position that they would be in while being transported under a helicopter," they said in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases.

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They also conducted a study of rhinos suspended on their side, to mimic the way they're normally transported.

The scientists initially expected that hanging upside down by the feet would be worse for rhinos' pulmonary function.

Instead, they found the rhinos fared slightly better.

"These experiments suggest that the pulmonary system of immobilised black rhinoceros is no more compromised by suspension by the feet for 10 minutes than it is by lying in lateral recumbency," they said.

However, they pointed out the need for future experiments as helicopter translocation of black rhinoceroses usually takes longer than 10 minutes.

" Such studies should also determine whether the small improvements in [oxygen and ventilation] observed with suspension are consistent."

What your chewing gum says about you

... or rather, what it says about your bacteria.

A team of four researchers from the Institute of Integrative Systems Biology were awarded the Ecology Prize for using genetic analysis to identify the different species of bacteria that reside in wads of discarded chewing gum stuck on pavements in various countries.

They collected 10 chewing gum samples from France, Greece, Spain, Turkey and Singapore, froze them in a lab at minus 80 degrees, and then ground them down into a fine powder.

The analysis centred around the types and diversity of bacteria at different places in the world, and also at different locations within the wad of gum (surface, intermediate and bottom layers). It also looked at the microbial succession - from oral bacteria to environmental bacteria - that takes place in the chewing gum during the first weeks after its disposal.

As reported in the journal Scientific Reports, the team found that oral bacteria persists for a "surprisingly long" period of time on wasted chewing gum.Men 'grew beards to stop being punched in the face', and other whacky science research

"In addition, many of the bacteria we have isolated from older gum have the potential to bioremediate the gum itself - that is, degrade it," researcher Manuel Porcar said.

These long-lasting gum residues could also be used for human genetic analysis in criminology and archaeology, the researchers said.

"Our results have implications in fields such as criminology, contagious disease control, waste management and bioremediation."

An unconventional way to improve breathing

This year's Medicine Prize was awarded to a team that managed to demonstrate that sexual orgasms can be as effective as decongestant medicines at improving nasal breathing.

They followed 18 heterosexual couples - all healthcare workers or partners of healthcare workers - and assessed nasal function before sex, immediately after orgasm, 30 minutes later, one hour later, then five hours later.

"Sexual intercourse with climax can improve nasal breathing to the same degree as application of nasal decongestant for up to 60 minutes in patients having nasal obstruction," they wrote in the Ear, Nose & Throat Journal.

Three hours after sexual intercourse, nasal breathing was back to the baseline level, whereas after application of nasal decongestant spray, nasal breathing was still significantly improved after three hours.

The researchers said the "results of this study, though interesting, may not be generalisable".

"The participants were all healthcare professionals, indicating that our study group does not represent an equally distributed population," they said.

"As the rhinometric measurements were obtained at the participants' home by themselves, the compliance with the guidelines cannot be guaranteed."

However, the improvement in nasal function after sex was "significant" in participants with pre-existing nasal obstruction.

And there you have it. For more prize winners, visit Improbable.

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