Ig Nobel Prize winners honored for health research studies

The 2011 Nobel Prizes will be announced next week, and science buffs are busy debating whether the award will go to researchers who developed useful cancer drugs, made breakthrough discoveries in the field of regenerative medicine or invented the birth control pill, among many other worthy contenders. But you can’t expect all research on human health to tackle such weighty issues, so let’s pause for a moment to recognize the winners of the 2011 Ig Nobel Prizes.

The Ig Nobels were handed out Thursday night at Harvard University to recognize improbable research that first makes you laugh, then makes you stop and think. At least that’s the idea. At a minimum, these should make you chuckle:

We all have to pee. But did you know that if you have to pee really badly, it can affect your cognitive function? Apparently, the urgent need to urinate causes temporary decreases in the function of attentional and working memory. What’s more, people who are better at controlling their bladders are also better at resisting temptations that involve spending money. The European scientists who figured this out won the Ig Nobel for medicine.

You wouldn’t want to perish in a fire or other kind of emergency because you slept through a warning alarm, right? Thank goodness researchers in Japan are working on a different kind of alarm that relies not on sound but the delivery of airborne wasabi to wake people up when further slumber is simply not safe. These guys have filed a patent on their wasabi alarm, and they won the Ig Nobel for chemistry.


Ever wonder why people sigh? Karl Halvor Teigen of the University of Oslo did, and his research revealed that people think their own sighs indicate that they are “giving up” on something but that other people’s sighs are a sign of sadness. He won the Ig Nobel for psychology.

In track and field, athletes who throw a discus typically spin around a couple of times before unleashing a frisbee-shaped object. Athletes who throw a hammer (a heavy metal ball at the end of a chain) spin around five times before releasing their apparatus. However, discus throwers are prone to getting dizzy but hammer throwers aren’t, and a European team won the Ig Nobel for physics in recognition of their study that explained why – the hammer throwers are able to use spotting techniques to keep their balance but discuss throwers move their heads in a manner that can induce motion sickness.

The Ig Nobel for public safety went to a Canadian psychologist who put his life on the line – and arguably those of fellow drivers – when he took a spin on an eight-lane highway while wearing an unusual hat with a visor that repeatedly dropped in front of his eyes, completely obscuring his view. The goal was to figure out how long a driver could afford to look away while still driving safely. “The half-second look that I have is enough to restore all the information that I should need in order to drive down the road,” he explains in this video.

Not all of the awards had a health angle. A Stanford University philosophy professor won the Ig Nobel for literature for his work “How to Procrastinate and Still Get things Done;” a series of incorrect doomesday predictors (including, most recently, Oakland preacher Harold Camping) won the Ig Nobel for mathematics for “teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations;” and the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, won the Ig Nobel Peace Prize with his demonstration that “the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with an armored tank.”


The full list of winners is online here.