Award for amusing achievements in unconventional scientific research
By Lu Yan  ·  2023-12-04  ·   Source: NO.49 DECEMBER 7, 2023
Su Bin, a professor of materials science at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology, takes questions from primary and middle school students after receiving the Pineapple Science Invention Award in Wenzhou on November 11 (COURTESY PHOTO)

Why do raindrops not kill mosquitoes? Why is yawning contagious? Why is it that the more gray hairs you pull out, the faster the remaining hairs on your head turn gray?

These are the kind of questions that first make you laugh and then leave you a little puzzled.

But scientists all over the world have already uncovered the secrets behind these phenomena. And to honor their efforts, the Pineapple Science Award has been created, shining a light on the interesting parts of our lives that are valuable to research—but easy to ignore.

Laugh and think

The award that honors curiosity-led research was originally initiated by the Zhejiang Science and Technology Museum and, China's leading popular science website, in 2012.

The idea was inspired by the Ig Nobel Prize, a satiric prize awarded annually since 1991 to celebrate unusual or trivial achievements in scientific research organized by Annals of Improbable Research magazine, a bastion of "nerdy" science humor.

Pineapple Science Award recognizes interesting scientific research. Wang Yami, the award's chief planner, said, "The winning research may seem funny, but it is actually serious scientific research."

The awards are divided into 10 categories, namely mathematics, medicine, invention, psychology, biology, physics, scientific event, scientific illustration, contribution made for the next generations and sustainable development.

This year, several researchers were honored in November. For example, Su Bin, a professor of materials science at the School of Materials Science and Engineering at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, Hubei Province, and his team received the invention award for developing a 3D-printed toilet with a coating so slippery that nothing will leave a mark.

A super-slippery toilet coating saves water by repelling feces. Applying it to a toilet can cut water use for flushing. But unlike other slippery toilets, the coating developed by the Wuhan-based team holds up even after heavy use.

The technology is designed for much broader applications, and the team only used the toilet as an example to better showcase the results. "Surprisingly, it has attracted public attention and given our research more exposure," Su told Beijing Review.

The prize for outstanding biological achievement this year went to Lars Chittka, a professor of sensory and behavioral ecology at the Queen Mary University of London in the United Kingdom. Chittka led a study that found that bumblebees seem to enjoy rolling around tiny wooden balls. The finding suggests that much like humans, insects interact with inanimate objects as a form of play. Also similar to humans, younger bees seem to be more playful than adult bees.

The research is a strong indication that insect minds are far more sophisticated than humans have ever imagined.

"I hope that the work on bees enjoying 'playing soccer' raises awareness about the many alien minds that surround us on this planet, as well as a new respect for the natural world," Chittka told Beijing Review. "We ought to do more to protect the natural environments that allow animals to enjoy themselves."

"I am more than pleased to accept this award," Chittka said. "All science is a kind of playful, exploratory activity."

Ph.D. candidate in psychology František Bartoš and his colleagues from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands overthrew the entrenched thinking that when tossing a coin, the chances of it landing on one side or the other—heads or tails—are 50:50.

A group of 48 people flipped coins from 46 different countries and after collecting the results of more than 350,000 flips, they found that coins landed on the same side as they had started on 50.8 percent of the time. The group won the prize for mathematical achievement.

"We found out that the general public was interested in our results, so I hope this experiment can help increase the visibility of statistics in science," Bartoš told Beijing Review.

Previous editions of the award honored other interesting but unconventional achievements. For example, utilizing deep learning technology, teams from the Chinese Academy of Sciences found that dogs tend to wag their tails more to the left when dealing with unfamiliar individuals, while they wag their tails to the right when facing people they know or like. They received the prize for mathematical achievement in 2022.

Influencer and welder Geng Shuai, better known by his online nickname Craftsman Geng—and dubbed "Useless Edison" by his fans—took home the 2020 invention prize.

With his wacky inventions such as a piano that can cook kebabs and a smile-assisting device you can put on your face, making you look like a mask-clad Hannibal Lecter from the 1991 American suspense blockbuster The Silence of the Lambs, Geng has attracted more than 7 million followers on Bilibili, a popular Chinese online video-sharing platform mainly targeting Gen Zs, and more on other social media platforms.

Alexandra Sarafoglou (left), a colleague of František Bartoš from the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, accepts the award for mathematical achievement on behalf of the team at the award ceremony in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province,
on November 11 (COURTESY PHOTO)

The next generation

Chittka believes that science is an international activity. His team for the ball-rolling bee study had six authors from six different countries—from three continents.

"I am proud to bring together such an amazing team from all over the world. I would be very happy if the visibility of this award gets more people in China interested in our work, and if this leads to further collaborations," he said.

Alexandra Sarafoglou, Bartoš's colleague who accepted the prize at the November 11 award ceremony in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, on behalf of the team, echoed Chittka's perspectives. "During the ceremony, I felt inspired when hearing more about the research topics—even if the research itself seems funny and sometimes absurd. The research itself was impactful and usually conveyed important implications for society," she said.

The awards are also dedicated to building a platform to help the younger generations cultivate an interest in science and enhance scientific literacy as well as creativity. "The popularization of science has become more interesting, which also means that science is becoming more vibrant and accessible to the public," said Li Ruihong, founder of the Pineapple Science Award.

While attending the award ceremony, Su was surprised to see several children in the audience. "They crowded around me, asking me questions and discussing science after my research demonstration on stage. I was touched to see so many children interested in science," Su said.

Aside from his regular university teaching job and doing research, Su also popularizes science in primary and middle schools under programs hosted by the Hubei Association for Science and Technology.

"Science is critical, not just for the next generations, but for all. After obtaining more scientific knowledge, one can easily distinguish false advertising, posing as science, from the truth," Su added.

Lars Chittka, a professor of sensory and behavioral ecology at the Queen Mary University in London, the United Kingdom, who received this year’s Admiring Curiosity award for biological achievement, takes a selfie with the trophy (COURTESY PHOTO)

(Print Edition Title: Calling All Curious Minds)

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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