Frozen Poop Knives Don’t Cut It

Sept. 25, 2020

I have so many reasons to be proud of my alma mater, Kent State University (KSU), Kent, Ohio. It has an excellent school of journalism, it is home to cute black squirrels, it holds a position in history as a campus of meaningful protests and it touts many notable alumni including Joe Walsh from the Eagles; comedians Drew Carey and Steve Harvey; former Batman Michael Keaton; and hometown women Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders and Connie Shultz, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist whose snark and writing style I admire.

I can add another reason to be proud: It is the home of seven 2020 Ig Nobel Prize winners who were able to show that knives made out of frozen human feces don’t work.

The 2020 Ig Nobel Prizes, honoring achievements that first make people laugh, and then think, were awarded in an online-ceremony spanning six continents. The pandemic kept the ceremony from its traditional home at Harvard University.

I spoke with one of the members of the poop-knife dream team, lead author Metin I. Eren, director of archaeology and assistant professor of anthropology at KSU.

My first question: Did you study the durability of poop knives to vie for an Ig Nobel or was there another reason behind it? According to Eren, the research came first; the Ig Nobel was just a secondary bonus.

Eren credits an NPR segment he heard in 1998 featuring anthropologist Wade Davis, author of the book “Shadows in the Sun,” as the spark for his future research. The book details several stories of indigenous cultures around the world. One story featured an Inuit man who was left to his own defenses in the Arctic after being exiled from his family. With no tools for survival, he fashioned a knife out of his own frozen feces and was able to kill a dog and use the ribs and hide to make a sled and harness. Since publication, this story has been told and re-told in documentaries, books, and across internet websites and message boards.

Eren, who also is a research associate at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, wondered about the efficacy of a fecal knife so he set out to perform the necessary research along with his team of weaponized-turd scientists.

Eren assures me two things: One, no taxpayer money went into this research; all the “raw” materials were provided by him or his co-researcher Michelle R. Bebber. And two, no grad students were harmed (they were in charge of the background research.) Eren and Bebber were the weaponized-poop producers.

To mimic the poop an Inuit would have passed long ago, Eren ate a high protein diet. After about four days he started producing the proper poop to test. He says he’s never really felt shame or regret with any of his research but pooping in a bag at home and tossing it in dry ice (-50° C) had him teetering on the edge. When he saw how hard the fecal matter became, he thought “This sh*t might cut it.”

Unfortunately, it didn’t. The poop knife, while molded and sharpened, didn’t even scratch the surface of the meat samples they tested it on. But not all was lost. According to Eren, the research also carried a very serious message: The importance of evidence and fact checking, especially when narratives in non-scientific arenas are attached to scientific findings, is crucial.

“Social changes require certain tools,” says Eren. “Outrage is important. Protest is important. And we have another tool -- humor. Humor lets us step back and give perspective. It can bring people together [on a concept or cause] better than the other tools.”

Well, the Ig Nobels are all about humor. The prizes were handed to the winners by genuine Nobel laureates. The laureates who helped present the prizes: Eric Maskin (economics, 2007), Frances Arnold (chemistry, 2018), Rich Roberts (physiology or medicine, 1993), Marty Chalfie, (2008, chemistry) Jerome Friedman (physics, 1990), and Andre Geim (physics 2010). [NOTE: Ten years before receiving a Nobel Prize, Andre Geim was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize in physics for using magnets to levitate a frog.]

All of this year’s winners will present free talks on their research via webcasts (get more information here). They are bound to be fascinating presentations. In addition to frozen-turd knives, you can learn more about:
• Alligators bellowing in helium
• Eyebrows of narcissists
• Diplomats ringing doorbells and running
• Vibrating earthworms
• Kissing and national income inequality
• The reluctant hitmen
• Entomologists scared of spiders
• Mental distress from chewing sounds
• Politicians' effect on life & death

You can also watch the entire awards ceremony via the video below. You’ll be treated to the magic of cross-continent award presentations that defy logic by passing actual awards through computers.

Traci Purdum is Chemical Processing’s senior digital editor. The six years she spent at Kent State University for a four-year degree were well spent chasing black squirrels and testing beers at Ray’s Place. If she had a chance to do it over, she might have also majored in archaeology and anthropology. 
About the Author

Traci Purdum | Editor-in-Chief

Traci Purdum, an award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering manufacturing and management issues, is a graduate of the Kent State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Kent, Ohio, and an alumnus of the Wharton Seminar for Business Journalists, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

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