Blasting a speaker to move garden worms in a regional Victorian backyard might sound more like a high school science experiment than a breakthrough in neuroscience.
What started as an exercise in curiosity of two academics from Melbourne’s Swinburne University has found vibrations cause earthworms to form patterns in the same way water droplets react to vibrations.
On Thursday, the research was awarded an Ig Nobel prize – the send up of the prestigious Swedish awards that instead celebrate findings that “first makes people laugh, and then makes them think”.
Physicist Ivan Maksymov and applied mathematician Andriy Pototsky said their award was “the biggest surprise” of their professional lives, given the origins of the research.
Maksymov told Guardian Australia he was in the backyard of his home in Seymour, in regional Victoria, when he considered the visual similarity between liquid moving from vibration known as Faraday waves – and earthworms.
Considering the high water content of the worms, Maksymov took a handful out of the ground, temporarily sedated them, and placed them on a subwoofer in his garage, which was set up with some equipment for days when he did not want to make the hour-and-a-half long drive into his university office.
“It was a pure ‘what if’ moment,” he said. “We didn’t go into this with any particular question or scientific problem to solve.
“I decided to vibrate the speaker, so I played some instrumental beeping noises through. And they started to move like water.”
He later returned the test subjects to his backyard worm farm, where they regained consciousness.
After the initial discovery, Pototsky created a model to help further the research.
Since the findings were published in a scientific journal, the pair are exploring potential applications for the finding.
They believe it could be useful as a non-invasive method of studying brain impulses, and beyond neuroscience they believe it can be used in robotics to simulate a worm’s movements.
Despite the comedic element to the research, they decided to accept the award in the knowledge it would further spread their findings and potentially be taken up in further neuroscientific practice.
Makymov also pointed out that a previous Ig Nobel recipient, Andre Geim, who won an award in 2000 for levitating a frog by magnetism, went on to win a Nobel prize in physics 10 years later.
This year’s Ig Nobels – the 30th edition – also awarded an Ohio anthropologist who made a knife from his frozen faeces, who then attempted, and failed, to cut a pig hide with the blade.
A Canadian psychologist also won an award for linking thicker eyebrows with narcissism.
Winners of the price receive a paper cube, folded by a Nobel laureate, and a £10tn dollar bill from Zimbabwe.