Study of London taxi drivers wins Ig Nobel prizeBMJ 2003; 327 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.327.7419.831-a (Published 09 October 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:831
Paper airplanes, Nobel laureates, opera singers, Miss Sweetie Poo, and the Stud Muffins of Science all graced the stage of Harvard University's Sanders Theater for the annual Ig Nobel prize ceremony last week. Cheers, hoots, and shouts of disbelief greeted the winners.
The Ig Nobel prizes, awarded to scientists whose work “first makes people laugh—then makes them think,” are given to mostly honoured, sometimes insulted, scientists who fly themselves to Boston from around the world to receive their “Ig” and explain their work. Scientists from four continents were awarded prizes in 10 categories this year.
For her work showing that the brains of London taxi drivers were more highly developed than the brains of non-taxi drivers, Eleanor Maguire won the 2003 Ig Nobel medicine prize. Dr Maguire, senior research fellow in neuropsychology with the Wellcome Department of Cognitive Neurology, was the lead author of “Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (2000;97:4398-403).
She told the BMJ in an exclusive interview that she was “really, really, really, glad to be here.” The cause for her gladness, she added, was that her airplane was abruptly diverted from landing at Boston's Logan Airport when another plane took to the runway. It was a close call.
Explaining her study on taxi drivers, she said: “This is the first study to show that the work you do can really change the structure of the brain.” She emphasised that this insight into the plasticity of the human brain might offer hope for rehabilitation of neurologically injured patients.
Dr Maguire and colleagues used voxel-based morphometry—which identifies regional differences in relative grey matter density in structural magnetic resonance images—to identify changes in brain size changes. The technique, the authors state, is objective because “it allows every point in the brain to be considered in an unbiased way, with no a priori regions of interest.” Asked about the implications of her findings regarding the nature versus nurture argument, in which structural brain differences are assumed to be inherent and not due to environmental influences, Dr Maguire responded, “It's probably a mixture of both.”
Dr Maguire is following up her work with a longitudinal study of taxi drivers to correlate cause and effect with regard to changes in brain size.
Another winner was Lal Bihari, of Uttar Pradesh, India, who was declared legally dead but lived to receive this year's Ig Nobel peace prize. Mr Bihari was given the award for “leading an active life even though he has been declared—and remains—legally dead.” The citation was also for waging a lively posthumous campaign against greedy relatives who had him declared dead in order to steal his land and for creating the Association of Dead People.
Other Igs were handed to winners by genuine Nobel laureates Dudley Herschbach (chemistry, 1986), William Lipscomb (chemistry, 1976), Wolfgang Ketterle (physics, 2001), and Richard Roberts (physiology or medicine, 1993). Winners of Igs included Jack Harvey and his colleagues, who won the Ig physics prize for their irresistible report, “An analysis of the forces required to drag sheep over various surfaces,” in Applied Ergonomics (2002;33:523-31). Gian Vittorio Caprara and colleagues received an Ig for their incisive report “Politicians' uniquely simple personalities” in Nature (1997;385:493).
The real shock of the evening was reserved for C W Moeliker, curator of birds at the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam, who won the biology prize. Mr Moeliker brought down the house with his dry commentary on his winning paper, “The first case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard Anas platyrhynchose” (Deinsia 2001;8:243-7).
Mr Moeliker is taking his fame in stride. When told he could be a star of late night talk shows in the United States, Moeliker said dryly, “They'll have to fly me in.”
Details of this year's Ig Nobel ceremony are at www.improb.com/ig/ig-top.html