Poop Vanilla, Endless Soup Among 2007 Ig Nobels
Mason Inman in Cambridge, Massachusetts
for National Geographic News
|October 5, 2007|
Sword swallowing is surprisingly safe, it turns out, as long as you don't hiccup or get distracted by a wily macaw on your shoulder.
The next generation of battlefield weapons might be bombs that make enemy soldiers fall in lust with each other.
Also, vanilla fragrance can be effectively extracted from cow dung, and hamsters given Viagra cope better with jetlag.
These are among the bizarre but real findings that earned researchers Ig Nobel prizes this year.
Marc Abrahams, the creator of the awards, said the Ig Nobels are meant for discoveries or inventions that "make you laugh, and then make you think."
The winners collected their prizes last night at a ceremony at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with more than a thousand people in attendance.
Swords and "Aphrodisiac Bombs"
At the ceremony, sword swallower Dan Meyer inserted a long blade down his throat, then walked to the microphone and said "fank ooh" for the Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Meyer and radiologist Brian Witcombe of the Gloucestershire Royal Hospital in England did a survey of sword swallowers to find out what kinds of injuries and complications these performers commonly suffered.
Although most of the performers were self-taught, they had surprisingly few complaints.
One common problem was "sword throat," an irritation usually caused by performing their act too often.
According to the study, published in the British Medical Journal, the few cases of more serious problems were often freak occurrences.
One sword swallower "lacerated his esophagus and developed pleurisy [a type of lung inflammation] after being distracted by a misbehaving macaw on his shoulder," according to the study.
In another case, a sword-swallowing belly dancer suffered a major hemorrhage when an audience member stuck money in her belt, making the blades scissor and cut her esophagus.
The U.S. Air Force's Wright Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio, won the Ig Nobel Peace Prize for advocating a tactic that could be called "make love, not war."
Aphrodisiacs could work as a nonlethal way of stymieing enemy troops, if the chemicals made the soldiers sexually irresistible to one other, the Air Force researchers figured. (Related story: "Do Aphrodisiacs Really Work?" [February 14, 2006].)
No such drug is known, but the scientists proposed a $7.5-million-dollar project to try to develop such chemicals.
Other ideas in the Air Force report, titled "Harrassing, Annoying, and 'Bad Guy' Identifying Chemicals," included devising ways of making bees attack the enemy or giving the enemy severe bad breath, so that soldiers could later be picked out from noncombatants.
The government documents on the proposed project were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Sunshine Project, a group based in Austin, Texas.
Tasty Soup—and Manure?
Brian Wansink of Cornell University earned the Nutrition award for a study he led to see how much people would eat when fed from an automatically refilling bowl of soup.
Over 15 minutes, those eating from the trick bowl downed about 75 percent more soup.
But afterward, when asked if they were full, the people who'd been tricked said, "I can't be full—I still have half a bowl of soup left," Wansick said.
"The big danger is we end up eating with our eyes and not our stomachs."
The Ig Nobel for Chemistry went to Mayu Yamamoto of Japan, who devised a method of isolating vanilla fragrance from cow dung.
"I [went] to an agriculture college, and every day I saw the cow's dung," Yamamoto said, so she got inspired to find a new use for it.
Cow dung contains a lot of the chemical lignin, a chemical abundant in plants.
Breaking lignin down into smaller molecules is a common way of making synthetic vanillin, the chemical responsible for the scent and taste of vanilla.
But would people want to use the cow-dung vanillin if they knew where it came from?
"Maybe not for food," Yamamoto said.
Bed Bugs—And Algae, Ferns, and Scorpions
The Biology Prize went to Johanna E.M.H. van Bronswijk of Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.
She won for her "census of all the mites, insects, spiders, pseudoscorpions, crustaceans, bacteria, algae, ferns, and fungi with whom we share our beds each night," Abrahams said. (See a video of bed bugs.)
"Although all beds that I sampled had some [mites], the numbers differed enormously," Bronswijk said.
"You might think some of them would not have enough food in the mattress," she said.
"But no, that was not the case, because we feed them skin scales. One or one and a half grams [about half an ounce] we lose each day, which is enough for years to feed them."
She added, "they also eat human semen, so the food there was enough.
"We did not find any mattress that had no mites. They all had some. So you never sleep alone."
Bronswijk sees a lesson in this about how we look at the world around us. "Nature does not stop at the windowsill," she said.
Hamsters on Viagra
The Ig Nobel Prize for Aviation went to a group of biologists who watched how hamsters behaved while on Viagra, a popular drug for erectile dysfunction.
The researchers put the animals through simulated jetlag, turning on the lights in their cages either earlier or later than usual.
Hamsters are good for this kind of study because "they're very precise animals," said study leader Diego Golombek of the National University of Quilmes in Argentina.
"You turn the lights off, and they start running on the wheel" in their cages.
But when their internal clocks are artificially adjusted, it takes the animals several days to adjust to their new "time zone."
The researchers found that low doses of Viagra did not induce erections but were still enough to reset the animals' internal clocks much faster.
The researchers filed a patent for this new use of Viagra. But first they need to do more studies.
"We want to know that we can use a dose low enough that we can reset the clock, but not cause any secondary effects," Golombek said.
From the researchers' standpoint, he said, "the erectile effects of Viagra are side effects."
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