Respectful Insolence

The Ig Nobel

Well, the winners of the the evil Doppelganger of the Nobel Prizes, a. k. a. the Ig Nobel Prizes, have been announced, and more worthy winners I can’t think of:

BOSTON, Massachusetts (AP) — The sound sets teeth on edge, makes skin crawl and sends a shiver down the spine. Just thinking about it gives some people the heebie-jeebies.

But what is it about the sound of fingernails scratching a blackboard that elicits such a universal reaction?

Randolph Blake and two colleagues think they know — the sound’s frequency level.

Their research has earned them an Ig Nobel, the annual award given at Harvard University by Annals of Improbable Research magazine for weird, wacky and sometimes worthless scientific research.

The winners honored — or maybe dishonored — at a raucous ceremony Thursday at Harvard’s inappropriately opulent Sanders Theater include a doctor who put his finger on a cure for hiccups; two men who think there is something to the old adage that feet smell like cheese; and researchers who discovered that dung beetles won’t tuck in to just any old pile of … well, dung.

What started as a small event in 1991 to honor obscure and humorous scientific achievements has grown into an international happening, with some of this year’s winners traveling from Australia, Kuwait and France. The awards are given out by real Nobel laureates, including Harvard physics professor Roy Glauber, who stays after the event to sweep up.

Here’s my favorite winner:

Dr. Francis Fesmire said he wasn’t sure whether he was honored or embarrassed when he learned he’d won an Ig Nobel for his paper called — ahem — “Termination of Intractable Hiccups with Digital Rectal Massage.”

“I’m a serious guy, and something I wrote in 1987 is coming back to haunt me,” said Fesmire, an emergency physician and director of the emergency heart center at Erlanger Medical Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Fesmire, who stresses he is a real doctor who “someday wishes to truly be remembered for my cardiac research,” tried the technique for the first and last time nearly 20 years ago.

He knew that the technique could be used to slow a rapid heartbeat by stimulating the vagus nerve. The same nerve, when stimulated, can stop hiccups.

“I saw this patient who couldn’t stop his hiccups. I tried these other maneuvers, and then I stuck my finger in his bottom,” Fesmire said, emphasizing that it was the treatment of last resort. “Will I ever do it again? No!”

Why not? If it works, it works. We’re healers, dammit! If science says that digital rectal massage is what it takes to help a patient, well, then, that’s just what you’ll have to do.

I was also surprised to see someone about whom I’ve blogged before, Dr. Ivan Schwab, the opthamologist who’s also a dedicated evolution maven, particularly the evolution of the mammalian eye:

Dr. Ivan Schwab accepted his Ig Nobel for his work explaining why woodpeckers don’t get headaches. Schwab, an opthamologist, said his writings are based on the research of deceased UCLA professor Phillip R.A. May, who received an Ig Nobel posthumously.

“I had heard about the Igs, and this sounded like too much fun to pass up,” said Schwab, who planned on dressing up as a woodpecker for the ceremony. “I’m very proud to be part of it.”

I knew he had to be a cool guy.

Comments

  1. #1 clone3g
    October 6, 2006

    “I saw this patient who couldn’t stop his hiccups. I tried these other maneuvers, and then I stuck my finger in his bottom,”

    Of course your finer dining establishments will probably frown on that technique.

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    October 6, 2006

    Hey, this is neat. The physics prize went to “Basile Audoly and Sebastien Neukirch, for their insights into why dry spaghetti often breaks into more than two pieces when bent.” I recall that Richard Feynman was puzzled by this very problem. He and Thinking Machines founder Danny Hillis put a considerable amount of effort into the problem. If you don’t have a copy of No Ordinary Genius at hand, check out this.

  3. #3 Emily
    October 6, 2006

    How are you going to know if it REALLY works if you don’t do an RCT? Any volunteers? Would be tough to double-blind, though…

    Heh.

  4. #4 Frontinus
    October 6, 2006

    Randolph Blake and two colleagues think they know — the sound’s frequency level.

    Funny, the meaningless phrase “frequency level” affects me in much the same way as the sound of fingernails on a blackboard.

  5. #5 MJ Memphis
    October 6, 2006

    “Dr. Ivan Schwab accepted his Ig Nobel for his work explaining why woodpeckers don’t get headaches.”

    Out of genuine curiosity, how do they *know* that woodpeckers don’t get headaches? I mean, you can’t very well ask them, and I would think it would be hard to do any sort of brain imaging on a woodpecker engaged in its normal activities.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.