Swear that it works

And the 2010 win­ners of the Ig No­bel Prizes for mad sci­ence are ...

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIFESTYLE - By MARK PRATT

NEXT time you crush your thumb with a ham­mer and you’re in ex­treme pain, go ahead, let fly with ev­ery filthy ob­scen­ity you know. It re­ally does help.

At least ac­cord­ing to Richard Stephens and his stu­dents, who earned a 2010 Ig No­bel prize, the award handed out by the An­nals Of Im­prob­a­ble Re­search mag­a­zine for silly sound­ing sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies that of­ten have sur­pris­ingly prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tions.

This year’s win­ners in­clude sci­en­tists who de­vel­oped a way to col­lect whale snot us­ing a re­mote-con­trol heli­copter; doc­tors from New Zealand who found that wear­ing socks on the out­side of your shoes re­duces the chances of slip­ping on ice; and re­searchers from China and the UK who ex­am­ined the sex life of fruit bats.

The 20th an­niver­sary edi­tion of the Ig No­bel awards cer­e­mony was held on Sept 30 at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity. The theme this year was bac­te­ria. There was the world pre­miere of The Bac­te­rial Opera about bac­te­ria that live on a woman’s front tooth, and door prizes for all 1,200 at­ten­dees: bac­te­ria (it was on the tick­ets).

As usual, real No­bel lau­re­ates were on hand to give out the prizes.

Stephens, a lec­turer in psy­chol­ogy at Keele Uni­ver­sity in the UK, was in­spired by some painful ex­pe­ri­ences suf­fered by his own fam­ily. A few years ago, af­ter smack­ing his hand with a ham­mer and blurt­ing out a choice ex­ple­tive, he felt much bet­ter.

About the same time, his wife gave birth to their daugh­ter. Dur­ing a par­tic­u­larly long and dif­fi­cult labour, she let loose with a few words that would have made a sailor blush. She later apol­o­gised, but the mid­wife waved off the blue lan­guage. “She said: We hear that all the time,” Stephens said.

How­ever, Stephens didn’t whack his sub­jects with a ham­mer. “We had to find a stim­u­lus that was painful but not harm­ful,” he said.

The test sub­jects dunked their hands in a bucket of ice cold wa­ter to see how long they could hold it there. Peo­ple with potty mouth were able to hold their hands in the wa­ter longer.

“What we think is when you swear you pro­duce an emo­tional re­ac­tion in your­self, you arouse your ner­vous sys­tem and you set off the fight or flight re­sponse,” Stephens said. “It gets the heart rate up, gets the adren­a­line flow­ing.”

Dr Lianne Parkin and her col­leagues found a way to avoid pain in the first place – wear socks over your shoes to pre­vent slip­ping on ice.

As a fam­ily physi­cian, Parkin has seen some nasty in­juries caused by falls. She also lives in Dunedin, New Zealand, where steep streets can turn treach­er­ous in the win­ter. The Dunedin area is home to Bald­win Street, known as “The Steep­est Street In The World”.

Parkin, now a se­nior lec­turer in epi­demi­ol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Otago, de­cided over tea with col­leagues to con­duct the study af­ter dis­cussing friends who wore socks over their shoes.

They gath­ered a group of their stu­dents, had some don ex­ter­nal socks and walk down icy streets. Sure enough, those wear­ing socks on the out­side got bet­ter trac­tion.

“Ob­vi­ously our re­search was light­hearted, al­beit re­lated to an un­der­ly­ing im­por­tant pub­lic health is­sue – falls, so we think (win­ning an Ig No­bel) is fun,” Parkin said via e-mail.

So far, how­ever, the re­search has not sparked a win­ter fashion revo­lu­tion.

Ka­rina Acevedo-White­house, Agnes Rocha-Gos­selin and Diane Gen­dron won the en­gi­neer­ing Ig No­bel for their novel way of gath­er­ing whale snot.

They used a small re­mote­con­trol heli­copter with petri dishes at­tached to the land­ing skids to catch “ex­haled breath con­den­sate” – that stuff that sprays out of a ma­rine mam­mal’s blow hole. The bac­te­ria found in the blow can give clues about the whale’s health.

Dutch re­searchers Simon Ri­etveld and Ilja van Beest won for in­ves­ti­gat­ing how roller­coaster rides af­fect asthma suf­fer­ers. They found that stress, such as at the start of a roller­coaster ride, can cause asth­mat­ics to think they are suf­fer­ing symp­toms even if they are not.

As usual, most win­ners of the du­bi­ous award were more than happy to be the butt of a lit­tle fun at the ex­pense of their se­ri­ous sci­en­tific work. And as usual, there were some hold­outs.

This year’s eco­nom­ics Ig No­bel went to ex­ec­u­tives and di­rec­tors at Gold­man Sachs, AIG, Lehman Broth­ers, Bear Stearns et al for their cre­ative in­vest­ment tech­niques that brought the global econ­omy to its knees.

An­nals Of Im­prob­a­ble Re­search edi­tor Marc Abrahams tried to in­vite rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the com­pa­nies to the cer­e­mony (those that still ex­ist at least) and hit a brick wall.

“We made a few at­tempts but soon re­alised it prob­a­bly would not be pos­si­ble,” he said. “They never re­sponded, not even with a ‘No thank you’.” – AP

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