The importance of smelly feet and stinky cheese

BMJ 2006; 333 doi: (Published 12 October 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;333:771
  1. Jeanne Lenzer
  1. Boston

    Scientists across the world were honoured last week for addressing such essential questions as how to stop hiccups and how the smell of Limburger cheese and smelly feet can help in the fight against malaria.

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    Dr Francis Fesmire won an Ig Nobel prize for his pioneering approach to hiccups


    The occasion was the annual Ig Nobel awards ceremony at Harvard University, where prizes are awarded for science that “first makes you laugh, then makes you think.” Participants were also able to celebrate the fact that one of the organisers, who always sweeps the floors after the event, had been awarded a real Nobel prize last December. Roy Glauber, an 81 year old professor of physics at Harvard, was awarded the prize for his pioneering work in quantum optics.

    The Ig Nobel prize for medicine went to Francis Fesmire of the University of Tennessee College of Medicine for finding a unique way to terminate intractable hiccups. Dr Fesmire found himself at a loss after many attempts to help a patient who couldn't stop hiccuping. Eventually he decided to stick his finger (gloved, he emphasises) up the rectum of his patient (citing vagal stimulation as his goal), and to his delight the patient stopped hiccuping—an event he reported in “Termination of intractable hiccups with digital rectal massage” (Annals of Emergency Medicine 1988;17: 872).

    Bart Knols of Wageningen Agricultural University in the Netherlands and colleagues in Tanzania, Austria, and Italy won the biology prize for finding that the female of the malaria mosquito Anopheles gambiae craves equally the smell of stinky feet and Limburger cheese. Dr Knols's “eureka” moment came when he realised that Limburger cheese is cultured with Brevibacterium epidermidis, a bacterium found on human skin. This finding has practical applications, said Dr Knols. By using an organism that emits an odour alluring to mosquitoes scientists hope to build traps that will monitor malaria infestation in mosquitoes to aid efforts at extermination. The work of Dr Knols and his colleagues at several other universities will receive an $8m (£4.3m; €6.3m) grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to continue their work to reduce the spread of malaria in Africa.

    Other Ig Nobel prizes this year included the peace prize, which was awarded to Howard Stapleton of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, for inventing a “teenager repellent.” The repellent is an electromechanical machine that emits high frequency shrieking that can by heard by teenagers but not by most adults. The literature prize was awarded to Daniel Oppenheimer of Princeton University for his report “Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: problems with using long words needlessly.” Dr Oppenheimer found that when smart people use big words they do not sound smarter to others; in fact they don't seem as smart as those who use simple, clear language.

    The ornithology prize went to Ivan Schwab, an ophthalmologist, who investigated and explained why woodpeckers don't get headaches (British Journal of Ophthalmology 2002; 86: 843). He found that the North American pileated woodpecker will strike trees at a rate of up to 20 times a second, up to 12 000 times a day, with deceleration forces that in a human would be equivalent to “striking a wall at 16 miles an hour—face first—each time.”

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