Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

The IgNobel Awards are the humorous counterpart to the Nobel Prizes; each year the most bizarre (but real!) research is awarded the dubious honor of an ‘IgNobel.’

“The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative — and spur people’s interest in science, medicine and technology,” said Marc Abrahams, editor of the science humor magazine “Annals of Improbable Research,” which sponsors the awards with the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association and Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students.

All the research is real and has been published in often-prestigious scientific and medical journals. However, unlike the Nobel prizes awarded this week by the Swedish Academy of Sciences, IgNobel winners receive no money, little recognition and have virtually no hope of transforming science or medicine.

Some highlights of the winners this year:

– BIOLOGY – Bart Knols of Wageningen Agricultural University in the Netherlands, the National Institute for Medical Research in Tanzania and the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria and colleague Ruurd de Jong for showing that the female Anopheles gambiae mosquito, which carries malaria, is attracted equally to the smell of limburger cheese and to the smell of human feet.

“We have shown that three different Anopheles mosquito species prefer to bite different parts of a naked motionless volunteer and that this behavior is influenced by odors from those body regions,” they wrote in their report, published in the Lancet medical journal in 1996.

— ORNITHOLOGY – Ivan Schwab of the University of California Davis, and the late Philip R.A. May of the University of California Los Angeles, for explaining why woodpeckers do not get headaches.

— NUTRITION – Wasmia Al-Houty of Kuwait University and Faten Al-Mussalam of the Kuwait Environment Public Authority, for showing that dung beetles are finicky eaters.

— PEACE – Howard Stapleton of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, for inventing a teen-ager repellent — a device that makes a high-pitched noise that is annoying to teen-agers but inaudible to most adults; and for later using the technology to make cellphone ringtones that teenagers can hear but not their teachers.

— ACOUSTICS – D. Lynn Halpern, Randolph Blake and James Hillenbrand of Chicago’s Northwestern University for a 1986 experiment aimed at discovering why the sound of fingernails scraping on a blackboard is so irritating.

— MEDICINE – Francis Fesmire of the University of Tennessee College of Medicine and the team of Majed Odeh, Harry Bassan and Arie Oliven of Bnai Zion Medical Center in Haifa, Israel who both published studies entitled “Termination of Intractable Hiccups with Digital Rectal Massage.”

— MATHEMATICS – Nic Svenson and Piers Barnes of the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organization, for calculating the number of shots a photographer must take to almost ensure that nobody in a group photo will have their eyes closed.


  1. #1 Robster
    October 10, 2006

    “Termination of Intractable Hiccups with Digital Rectal Massage.”

    Well, that would certainly get one’s attention, extremely likely to change one’s breathing patterns. Just try suggesting it though. I’d keep a copy of the article handy, just in case.

    I suppose that if somebody shows up at the ER complaining of painful hiccups for the last several hours…

  2. #2 speedwell
    October 10, 2006

    Robster, that’s not too far from what did happen in at least one of the studies. Still, you wonder what the hey made them decide to try it in the first place, eh?

  3. #3 Robster
    October 10, 2006

    I can only guess, speedwell. Maybe one of the docs had just had a prostate exam, perhaps after eating bread without enough water (that always gives me hiccups). After the exam, the hiccups are gone.

  4. #4 Shelley Batts
    October 10, 2006

    I kinda think it just shocked the hiccups right outta the patient.

  5. #5 Dan Hocson
    October 10, 2006

    Interstingly enough, the rectal/prostate massage idea has been around for years. I remember reading about it back in the dark ages of the 1980’s when I was a medical student. We had a patient come in to the Seattle VA with intractable hiccups.

    It never had to be offered to the patient, since a dose of thorazine (or plain lucky timing) fixed him up. We all thought the idea was pretty funny, though.

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