Science

Ig Nobel prizes honor do-it-yourself colonoscopies, a curious use for postage stamps, and other peculiar research

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The Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded each year in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to research that “makes people laugh, then think.”

Improbable Research

Tonight, as has become a yearly tradition, a historic theater at Harvard University was packed to the rafters with Nobel laureates and a rapt audience. They weren’t there to witness a sacrosanct scientific ceremony, but rather the 28th annual Ig Nobel Prizes, an honor bestowed on studies treasured as much for their hilarity as their scientific value. Although the theme of this year’s event, put on by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research, was “the heart,” much of the winning research focused on decidedly less glamorous parts of the human anatomy.

Take this year’s prize in medicine, which went to a pair of doctors who investigated whether riding a rollercoaster can help pass a kidney stone. The duo took 3D-printed kidney models for 20 rides on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Sitting in the back sections of the car yielded a 64% success rate for passing a stone, compared with 17% when seated at the front, the researchers reported in 2016 in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.

A trio of urologists took home the prize in reproductive medicine for their now 4-decade-old technique for measuring nighttime erections. They instructed several male volunteers to wrap a ring of postage stamps snugly around their penis at bedtime and check in the morning for tears in the perforation. The method, they reported in 1980 in The Journal of Urology, was nearly 100% accurate. The researchers clarified that they manufactured their own stamps for the experiment, as using official U.S. postage “required permission from the Secret Service.”

Japanese gastroenterologist Akira Horiuchi won the medical education prize for an experiment in which he reviewed the comfort and efficiency of self-colonoscopy in the sitting position by performing a colonoscopy on himself while seated. He reported only “mild discomfort.”

Other winners included a team that demonstrated that most people who use complicated products do not read the instruction manual (Literature Prize); researchers who surveyed Spanish drivers to determine the frequency, motivation, and effects of shouting and cursing while in a car (Peace Prize); a group that investigated whether using Voodoo dolls to retaliate against abusive bosses makes employees feel better (Economics Prize); and a team that tested the effectiveness of a “spit shine” by cleaning 18th century sculptures with saliva and several alcohol-based cleaners (Chemistry Prize). Spit won.

Past Nobel Prize winners handed out the awards, including Eric Maskin (Economics, 2007), Wolfgang Ketterle (Physics, 2001), Oliver Hart (Economics, 2016), and Michael Rosbash (Medicine, 2017). As has been tradition, each award was accompanied by a cash prize in the form of a $10 trillion bill from Zimbabwe, worth only a few U.S. cents. The organizers capped acceptance speeches at exactly 60 seconds, with winners cut short by an 8-year-old girl repeating: “Please stop. I’m bored.”

The ceremony also included the world premiere of The Broken Heart Opera, a musical that featured a gaggle of children attempting to build a mechanical heart, then breaking it, and—as the Bee Gees’s 1971 song “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” played—eventually repairing it. The audience was also encouraged to participate in the ceremony by folding pages from the program into paper airplanes and launching them at the stage.

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