In the name of science

I was so pleased to hear that Emmanuel Ben-Soussan picked up an illustrious Ig Nobel award last week for advising doctors...

I was so pleased to hear that Emmanuel Ben-Soussan picked up an illustrious Ig Nobel award last week for advising doctors who perform colonoscopies on how to minimise the chance of their patients exploding. I’m sure both doctors and patients appreciate his handy tips. I imagine it would be rather frightening to be lying on your side on an operating table with a tube stuck in an uncomfortable place and hearing a loud bang, followed by your surgeon exclaiming, “Oh, shit!”

The annual Ig Nobel awards are one of my favourite celebrations of scientific achievement, followed closely by the annual Darwin Awards, which tend to celebrate the exact opposite.

This year marks the 22nd gala, organized by humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research as a spoof of the nerdalicious and slightly more prestigious Nobel prizes, with winners awarded at Harvard University (birthplace of National Lampoon magazine; and responsible for the education of eight U.S. presidents).

While Ben-Soussan’s award is my personal favourite (and that could be because I’m getting to an age wherein doctors get their giggles by scheduling unpleasant things at annual checkup time), the Ig Nobel’s always have something for everyone.

Take Craig Bennett, a psychologist at the University of California, who picked up this year’s neuroscience prize for telling doctors that just because a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner shows signs of brain activity, it doesn’t mean your patient is actually alive. Bennett and his team discovered this blip by scanning the brains of dead salmon. His conclusion is that if you search long enough for something, you just might find it — but that doesn’t mean it can be trusted. Or it could also mean the salmon he tested was only pretending to be dead.

Anita Eerland of Open University in the Netherlands won the Ig Nobel for psychology by making people guess the height of the Eiffel Tower incorrectly. She discovered that when people lean to the left, things seem smaller, and when they lean to the right, things seem larger. This means that instead of buying a new, larger TV, we only have to put some blocks on the left side of the couch, so that we lean to the right. Voila! Big-screen fun at no extra cost.

The snickering charitable award of the evening went to the University of California’s Rouslan Krechetnikov in the category of fluid dynamics. I have a feeling that all the physicists and biologists were giggling over this one as Krechetnikov discovered it was just a coincidence that the biomechanics of walking contributes to the amplification of coffee sloshing, which results in us spilling our coffee when we walk.

And here I thought it was because I prefer to skip when I’m carrying a hot beverage. M

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