Intended for healthcare professionals


Ig Nobel awards honour salutary effects of cursing, roller coasters, and bat fellatio

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: (Published 05 October 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c5509
  1. Jeanne Lenzer
  1. 1Boston

Researchers who investigated the analgesic effects of cursing, the effects of roller coaster rides in people with asthma, and the health benefits that accrued to fruit bats that perform fellatio were among the winners of this year’s Ig Nobel awards, an annual spoof on the Nobel prize awards (BMJ 2010;341:c5533, doi:10.1136/bmj.c5533).

The Ig Nobels honour zany but genuine research that “first makes people laugh, then makes them think.” The awards were handed out on 30 September by actual Nobel laureates at Harvard University’s Sanders auditorium. This year’s ceremonial theme was “Bacteria!” and the audience cheered noisily during an opera about the trillions of germs that inhabit our bodies and far outnumber our own cells.

This year’s physics prize was awarded for research on the anti-skid properties of wearing socks over shoes. Lianne Parkin, a public health physician and senior lecturer in epidemiology at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, was stirred to action when Dunedin’s city council recommended that citizens wear socks over their shoes to prevent the high number of slips and falls experienced by many residents on the city’s steep, icy streets.

“There was no evidence for this off-label use of socks,” declared Dr Parkin. To put the recommendation to the test, she and her colleagues conducted a randomised controlled trial, and using an intention to treat analysis they found that wearers of socks over shoes walked with greater ease than those with their socks only inside their shoes.

The medicine award went to two Dutch researchers who turned asthma science upside down when they took 25 young women with severe asthma and 15 matched controls on a roller coaster ride and found that perceived dyspnoea correlated poorly with lung function.

The researchers, Simon Rietveld and Ilja van Beest of the University of Amsterdam and Tilburg University, found that negative stress just before the ride and positive emotions at the end of the ride were both associated with breathlessness.

However, during the period of post-ride exhilaration, young women with objective decreases in lung function did not perceive themselves as dyspnoeic. The researchers told the BMJ that their findings may have implications about how patients treat their symptoms. They hypothesise that negative emotions may cause some patients to overtreat, while positive emotions could lead to undertreatment.

To the delight of the audience the peace prize went to Richard Stephens for his discovery that swearing has analgesic effects. Dr Stephens, a lecturer in psychology at Britain’s Keele University, quantified his finding (confirmed by occasionally impressive P values) that cursing test participants were able to keep their hands submerged in icy water longer than those who were not allowed to curse. The effect held true for men and women, although women seemed to find the greatest relief from swearing. Dr Stephens confided that his research was triggered in part when he bashed his thumb with a hammer and cursed without restraint and in part by observing his wife letting out a stream of profanity during childbirth.

A team of biologists at the Guangdong Entomological Institute in Guangzhou, China, won the biology prize for their study of fellating fruit bats. Gareth Jones, professor of biological sciences at the University of Bristol, who worked with the Chinese researchers, told the BMJ that the benefits that accrued to the bats who performed fellatio went beyond the reported 6 second increase in copulation time caused by pre-copulation fellatio and may include sanitary benefits, as bat saliva has antimicrobial properties. Despite the salutary effects of bat fellatio, it appears that male fruit bats do not provide reciprocal services to female fruit bats, said Dr Jones.

The management prize went to a group of Italian researchers who used computational analysis to counter organisational dysfunction associated with the famed “Peter principle,” which posits that institutions promote otherwise competent people to a higher level of incompetence. “Good doctors should remain doctors and not become administrators,” explained one of the researchers. Evoking wild cheers from the audience, the researchers said that their “counterintuitive” but mathematically proved solution to the problem is to promote people at random.

Other winners included Karina Acebedo-Whitehouse and colleagues, who won a prize for creating a helicopter drone to obtain samples of whale snot in order to monitor the health of whales. The BP oil company and several US researchers were awarded an Ig for their 2005 paper that disproved the claim that water and oil don’t mix. Japanese researchers won an award for their work in revealing the basic principles guiding the spread of slime mould and applying those principles to the creation of railway networks. And the chief executive officers of Goldman Sachs, Bear Stearns, AIG, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and Magnetar won an award for promoting new ways to invest money.


Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c5509

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