Sex, frogs and rocking loos at the Ig Nobels

Collapsing toilets, levitating frogs, and acrobats making love in a magnetic resonance imager: Now who says scientists take themselves too seriously?

By | October 6, 2000

CAMBRIDGE, MA. Last night at Harvard University, some 1200 spectators popped bubble wrap, hurled paper airplanes, and happily celebrated the sillier side of science at the annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony. The event—a send–up of the real Nobel Prize awards, presented by a US-based science humor magazine called the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR)—rewards researchers whose efforts "cannot or should not be reproduced." Tongue firmly in cheek, AIR editor Marc Abrahams selects the Ig winners with an eye toward recognizing research that straddles the border between laughable and laudable.

Take the collapsing toilets of Glasgow, for example. This year's Ig Nobel prize in public health was awarded to a team of Scottish emergency room physicians for their report chronicling the injuries people sustained when aging porcelain toilets cracked under pressure. "Most people see the humorous side of our study," says lead investigator Jonathan Wyatt of the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro. "But there are serious public health implications." By publicizing the danger of resting one's full weight on a crumbling crapper, the authors hope they can keep people from winding up in hospital with wounds that are both "painful and embarrassing," says co-author Gordon McNaughton of the Royal Alexandria Hospital in Scotland. The alternative? McNaughton recommends adopting "the continental approach: Don't sit, just hover."

Wyatt and McNaughton were not the only researchers who journeyed overseas to accept their award. A pair of researchers trekked from Utrecht—well, from Groningen and Nijmegen, to be exact—to receive the Ig Nobels in medicine and in physics. Andrey Geim of the University of Nijmegen, The Netherlands, who received the Ig in physics for "using magnets to levitate a frog and a sumo wrestler," claims he attended the ceremony out of spite. "I'm a very nasty person," Geim explains. So he flew to Boston to irritate his colleagues. "They wouldn't be happy that I am accepting this 'stupid American prize,'" he says with a smile.

Geim delighted the audience with a video clip of his research subjects, which—in addition to the aforementioned frog—included diamagnetically suspended ice cubes, grasshoppers, strawberries, and a pizza. (The sumo wrestler was not in evidence.) But by far the most titillating images of the evening were provided by Pek van Andel of the University Hospital Groningen, who accepted the Ig Nobel prize in medicine for his "illuminating report: Magnetic Resonance Imaging of Male and Female Genitals During Coitus." According to van Andel, the inspiration for the study (which was rejected by the scientific journal Nature—twice) came from his seeing an MRI of the throat of a professional singer as she held a note. "I wondered, why not a scan of the love act?"

To carry out the research, van Andel and his colleagues enlisted the help of a female anthropologist and her carpenter boyfriend—both slender, amateur acrobats who were able to slide into the imager to perform. The subjects coupled as the magnets clanged, periodically holding still while their not-so-privates were thoroughly scanned. The results? Ida Sabelis wound up with an image of her insides that she describes as "not so much a passport photo," but an image of amazing beauty nonetheless. And van Andel discovered that "Masters and Johnson is garbage." In the 1960s, the American sexologists published a report suggesting that the uterus doubles in size during sexual arousal. But van Andel found no such thing, instead observing that in women, the bladder rapidly enlarges during sexual stimulation. His conclusion: "Sexual arousal has a diuretic effect." Either that, or the subjects should not be given coffee to comfort them before they clamber into the scanner.

This year's Ig Nobel prize in chemistry went to a less graphic study of sex: in a paper published in the journal Psychological Medicine, researchers at the University of Pisa reported that, biochemically speaking, romantic love appears to be indistinguishable from severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. Donatella Marazziti, the lead investigator, says she chose to compare these "conditions" chemically because they share "a list of overlapping features"—the amount of time spent obsessing, for example. In her study, subjects in love tended to fantasize about their partners in excess of four hours per day. Of course, the fact that the research was performed in Italy may have helped. "I don't find Anglo-Saxon people to be very romantic," jokes Marazziti. "But I haven't checked that with a blood test."

The Igs, however, are not all about pleasurable indulgences. One of the prizes even rewarded abstinence, of a sort. The Ig Nobel in literature went to Jasmuheen of Brisbane, Australia for her book on "Breatharianism" called Living on Light. In it she explains that although many people do eat food, they don't ever really need to. Michael Baume, the Australian Consul General who accepted the award on Jasmuheen's behalf, commended her ability to recognize the difference between air and wind. "By consuming air, we avoid passing wind," he notes. And because methane gas may contribute to global warming, he reasons, limiting flatulence may ultimately save civilization.

Speaking of civilization saving, the British Royal Navy took home the peace prize "for ordering its sailors to stop using live cannon shells and to instead just shout 'Bang!'" Finally, the psychology prize went to a pair of US researchers who discovered that people who are incompetent are completely unaware of it. Appearances to the contrary, the Ig organizers insist that these awards are totally unrelated.

But this raises a horrifying possibility. What if some Ig Nobel laureates, once introduced, decided to forge future collaborations? In fact, after the show, one Ig attendee approached Geim—the guy who levitates frogs—and suggested that he join forces with fellow Netherlander van Andel and his magnetic tunnel of love. "Uh, no," Geim wisely demurred, as he scooped up his award and headed for the wine bar.

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