2006 Ig Nobels Reward Research in Hiccups, Poop, and Bad Writing

Mason Inman in Cambridge, Massachusetts
for National Geographic News
October 6, 2006
The finicky eating habits of dung beetles, the attraction of mosquitoes to Limburger cheese, and "digital rectal massage" as a cure for hiccups—these were among the findings that garnered researchers Ig Nobel awards yesterday.

On the heels of the original Nobel prizes announced this week, the Ig Nobels held their 16th annual award ceremony at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The winners all made discoveries that "make you laugh and then make you think," said Marc Abrahams, who started the Ig Nobels.

The awards were inspired by his work as editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, which publishes reports of odd findings that appeared first in reputable science journals as bona fide discoveries.

Hiccup Cure?

On a stage strewn with paper airplanes flung by the audience, the Ig Nobel winners received their awards.

A crowd favorite was the Medicine award, which went to doctors who probed the edges of medical practice to find a cure for incessant hiccups.

They found that as a last resort an effective remedy is a "digital rectal massage."

The first to use this technique was Francis Fesmire, a doctor at Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

He treated a patient in the emergency room who suffered from hiccups every two seconds for three days.

"Initially gagging and tongue-pulling maneuvers were attempted with no change," Fesmire reported in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

After various other attempts, Fesmire resorted to sticking his finger where the sun don't shine. Applying a slow circular motion stopped the hiccups within seconds.

"I want to make it clear, I've done this once to a patient," Fesmire said. "It worked, and I was pleased. I have no desire to do it again."

Fesmire, who walked out to receive his award with his curative digit held up high, shared the prize with a team of Israeli doctors who later put their fingers on the same cure.

Dung Beetles and Stinky Cheese

Kuwaiti scientists uncovered the surprisingly finicky eating habits of dung beetles, which earned them the Ig Nobel for Nutrition.

The beetles scavenge for droppings of various animals and suck out the liquid. Then they roll the remains to a favorable spot, where they bury it and lay their eggs inside, providing both a home and a feast for their larvae.

(See a video of an African dung beetle.)

But not just any dung will do, the researchers found.

"They prefer the horse dung, and then the sheep, and then the camel at the end, because the horse dung, it has more liquid," said Faten Al-Mussalam.

She studied the beetles for her master's degree in biology and now works for the Kuwaiti Environmental Public Authority.

Al-Mussalam put her work in perspective, pointing out that the ancient Egyptians revered the beetle as a holy creature.

"They bury the dung with the eggs in the sand, and after that creatures come out of the sand. This is a symbol, like ascending after death," Al-Mussalam explained.

Studying bugs' food preferences brought another group an Ig Nobel.

The Biology award went to a group that showed a species of mosquito is equally attracted to people's stinky feet as to Limburger cheese.

They hit on using the cheese, famed for smelling of old musty shoes, after their earlier work found that the mosquitoes preferred to bite people's feet.

The work is not frivolous, however.

The researchers hope that the cheese will be useful for luring mosquitoes into traps. Once captured, they can be studied with the aim of stopping malaria, which mosquitoes spread.

Medical entomologist Bart Knols of Wageningen Agricultural University in the Netherlands, who accepted the award, said, "Beat malaria, and eat Limburger!"

Summarizing Science

Science demonstrations were held between award presentations, displaying for example how a bottle full of liquid nitrogen can shoot a trash can a few stories into the air.

Several winners of the genuine Nobel Prize and other noted scientists attended to help with the ceremony.

(See our coverage of this year's Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, Physics, and Medicine.)

A few attempted the 24/7 Lectures, which requires participants to explain a complex scientific concept first in 24 seconds and then in just 7 words.

One of the participants was 2004 Physics Nobel Prize winner Frank Wilczek, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

He described dark matter, the theoretical, unseen mass that makes up most of the material in our universe.

His seven words on the matter were: "What you see isn't what you get."

The Ig Nobel for Literature went to research that seems in line with the 24/7 Lectures.

For his prize-winning study, Princeton University psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer added complexity to existing samples of writing, inserting needlessly long words into a chunk of text.

His aim was to assess readers' reactions to the excessive prose.

"A majority of undergraduates admit to deliberately increasing the complexity of their vocabulary so as to give the impression of intelligence," Oppenheimer writes in his study.

But in the experiment, readers judged the authors of the overwrought texts to be not-so-bright.

Oppenheimer followed his own advice with his acceptance speech.

Upon accepting the award he said, "My research shows that conciseness is interpreted as intelligence. So, thank you."

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