Ig Nobels put catty science in spotlight

Didgeridoo players
Didgeridoo players get together for a jam in Bellbird Park in Australia. (Study Queensland Photo)

Now here’s news you can use: To stop snoring, try playing the Australian didgeridoo.

The scientists who demonstrated that regular playing of the elongated wind instrument could serve as an effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnea and snoring were among the honorees at this week’s Ig Nobel Prize ceremony at Harvard University.

The “27th first annual” ceremony also paid tribute to research studies that looked into whether cats are best classified as a solid or a liquid (with inconclusive results) and why old men have big ears (it’s complicated).

The Ig Nobels are presented annually by the Annals of Improbable Research and its improbably ingenious editor, Marc Abrahams, who serves as master of ceremonies. They recognize achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. They also serve as a humorous riff on the much more serious Nobel Prizes.

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Scientists revive weird cave crystal microbes

Cave crystals
Crystals dwarf an explorer in Mexico’s Naica cave complex. (Photo by Alexander Van Driessche – CC BY 3.0)

BOSTON – It sounds like a sci-fi tale: Scientists manage to revive strains of microbes that have been trapped inside giant cave crystals for tens of thousands of years, and find out that they seem positively alien.

But this tale is totally real. And although these organisms are so unlike anything else on Earth that they haven’t yet been given a genus or species name, they’re totally terrestrial.

“They’re really showing us what our kind of life can do,” said Penny Boston, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

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Five science tales that aren’t April Fool’s jokes

Image: Elasmotherium
A painting by Heinrich Harder (circa 1920) provides a view of Elasmotherium, a horned animal that went extinct tens of thousands of years ago. (Credit: Heinrich Harder via Wikipedia)

Unicorns are real! Scientists propose cloaking device to protect Earth from aliens! Glow-in-the-dark skin grown in lab! Those may sound like April Fool’s headlines, but they’re actually amped-up twists on real-life science. Check out five recent scientific revelations that take a walk on the weird side.

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‘X-Files’ climax shines spotlight on gene editing

Image: Agents Einstein and Scully
FBI Agent Einstein (Lauren Ambrose) takes a blood sample from Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) in the season finale of “The X-Files.” (©2016 Fox Broadcasting Co. Credit: Ed Araquel / Fox)

Spoiler Alert! This post doesn’t reveal any major plot twists, but it does explore significant elements of the “X-Files” season finale. Stop reading now if you want it to remain a surprise.

This week’s season finale of “The X-Files” is one of the first prime-time TV shows to reference the revolutionary gene-editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9, but it won’t be the last.

We won’t delve into the details of how CRISPR figures in the alien conspiracy. Let’s just say that the ability to snip out and insert genetic coding with molecular-scale precision is as good a match for the “X-Files” mythology as Scully is for Mulder.

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Astronaut goes ape on the space station

Image: Gorilla in space
NASA’s Scott Kelly floats through the International Space Station in a gorilla suit. (Credit: NASA)

Leave it to Scott Kelly, NASA’s record-holder for longest continuous time spent in space, to go big and go home: While winding down nearly a year in orbit, he donned an ape suit to terrorize a crewmate on the International Space Station.

At least British astronaut Tim Peake looks terrorized: It’s hard to believe he wasn’t in on the joke.

The prank started with the arrival of the gorilla suit – a gag gift from Kelly’s twin brother, Mark, that was sent up on a resupply flight. Scott Kelly climbed into the suit, and then climbed into a soft-sided storage container. NASA video shows Peake strapping down the container in the station’s Destiny lab as commentator Rob Navias narrates the scene.

The next shot shows the suit-wearing Kelly climbing out of the storage container, floating into the module next door, then chasing Peake in zero-G like a batty ape out of hell. Hilarity ensues.

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‘X-Files’ revival brings UFO sleuths into the light

Image: Alien visitation
Alien visitation is a big topic for “The X-Files.” (Credit: Fox)

UFOs are back in style, thanks in part to the return of “The X-Files” to television this weekend, almost 13 years after the last episode had its original airing. And while Mulder and Scully are delving into new anomalies in prime time, the folks who deal with UFO reports in real life are gearing up for renewed attention as well.

“X-Files, Y-Files, No-Files, I get calls from people who say they have evidence of alien visitation,” said Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute. “Either they’ve seen something, they’ve photographed something or they’re in touch with something.”

The calls generally come in at a regular rate, but Shostak does recall that there was a noticeable uptick while the original “X-Files” show was on TV.

Don Lincoln, a physicist at Fermilab who’s the author of “Alien Universe,” notes that attitudes toward UFOs tend to reflect depictions in popular culture, ranging from flying saucers and little green men to mysterious “Men in Black” and alien conspiracies. The original “X-Files” told tales of gray extraterrestrials and government coverups, and he’s curious to see whether the new series will follow the same path.

“It could well be that what the new X-Files will ultimately accomplish is to introduce a new generation to the mysteries of Area 51 and the unsettling idea of the Men in Black,” Lincoln wrote in an email. “I have said enough. They’re watching…”

One expert who won’t be watching is Peter Davenport, who’s the director of the National UFO Reporting Center, or NUFORC. He doesn’t even own a television.

“I try to avoid addressing works of fiction, because I am a scientist,” he told GeekWire from his home base in Harrington, Wash. “I collect data that is appropriate and accurate. … I find [fictional UFO tales] to be unsatisfying, seeing that I deal with the real thing, all day, every day.”

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Sex! Brains! Mystery! The Weirdies have ’em all

Image: Brain cap
University of Washington graduate student Jose Ceballos wears an EEG cap that records brain activity and sends a response to a second participant over the Internet. (UW photo)

When the calendar turns, it’s time to reflect on the biggest sensations of the past year: Time’s Person of the Year, AP’s Top News Story, Hollywood’s Oscar picks — and, of course, the Weirdies.

The Weirdies?

Since 2008, my annual Weird Science Awards have thrown a spotlight on the weirdest tales from the lab and from the field, ranging from glow-in-the-dark clones to lab-grown rabbit penises and an ancient Chinese marijuana stash.

This year’s lineup includes a couple of projects from the University of Washington, which provides a nice Seattle angle for GeekWire’s first running of the Weirdies. Without further ado, here’s the top 10:

Get the full list on GeekWire.