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Better Luck Next Year

By Zachary Levin

Posted December 13, 2000

It's so improbable

Shattering toilets and shagging in the lab may seem more the stuff of Porky's than of winning prizes. Unlike prizes for the best or the worst, though, the Ig Nobel Prize doesn't pass judgment on "whether a thing is good or bad, commendable or pernicious," said Marc Abrahams, founder of the award. Its mandate is to honor research that "cannot or should not be reproduced"—like Peter Fong's experiment in which he fed Prozac to clams, which received the Ig Nobel Prize for biology in 1998. The 10th slate of prizes was given out on October 5 in a ceremony at Harvard University's Sanders Theater, with 1,200 attendees and a clutch of past laureates who conferred the honors. Organized by the Annals of Improbable Research, the awards committee saw fit to confer a peace prize on the British navy, for ordering gunners to announce "Bang!" in practice instead of firing live shells, and an economics prize on Reverend Sun Myung Moon for "bringing efficiency and steady growth" to the marriage industry by wedding no fewer than 36 million couples, simultaneously, in 1997.

"Improbable" to be sure, but sometimes peer review is stranger than self-reporting. On hand to receive the public health prize were the authors of a report titled "The Collapse of Toilets in Glasgow" [1]. William Tullett, Jonathan Wyatt, and Gordon McNaughton of Glasgow's Western Infirmary redressed a critical gap in our understanding of the dangers of plumbing. As they explained in their paper, reports of toilet-related injuries have traditionally concentrated on penile injuries to young children (and presumably midgets and dwarves) as a result of the toilet seat falling unexpectedly, the results of which are known as "small slam syndrome." Though toilet collapses have not, according to the paper, led to life-threatening injuries, the three cases they present required hospital treatment, and the "embarrassment and discomfort to those involved" are themselves significant. A photograph of a wounded buttock is included, with the caption: "How safe is your toilet?" The authors recommend various methods to avoid such injuries: older porcelain should be treated with caution, and, for extreme safety buffs, "take a continental approach . . . adopt a hovering stance above it." The kilt-clad Scots endeavored to demonstrate some of their research onstage, but were cut short by an Ig lawyer.

Also abruptly censored was a re-creation of the prize-winning research in medicine. Pek van Andel, a physiologist at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, and his team had attempted to demonstrate the research behind "Magnetic Resonance Imaging of Male and Female Genitals During Coitus and Female Sexual Arousal," reported in the British Medical Journal [2]. The conclusion of their work: "Taking magnetic resonance images of the male and female genitals during coitus is feasible and contributes to understanding of anatomy." One asks, though, if the real prizewinners here are not the eight couples of "small to average" stature who squashed themselves into the machine and were able to keep at it while being interrupted for the scans, when they must have remained still. A stressful experience, to be sure: the majority of male participants in the study relied heavily on sildenafil citrate (Viagra) in order to perform adequately, except for one participant, "an amateur street acrobat . . . trained and used to performing under stress."

Van Andel's study casts the cold light of science on previously unverifiable theory. Leonardo da Vinci's anatomical drawing of 1493, "The Copulation," depicts the penis as a straight line during intercourse; in 1933, R.L. Dickinson envisaged it rather as S-shaped when the couple is in the missionary position. Van Andel and colleagues prove conclusively that it takes the shape of "a boomerang"” and that "1/3 of its length consists of the root of the penis." His study also debunks the Masters and Johnson finding that the uterus increases in size during sexual arousal.

This year's Ig Nobel Prize in chemistry also shed surprising light on love. Scientists at the University of Pisa, Italy, and the University of California, San Diego found that "biochemically, romantic love may be indistinguishable from having severe obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) [3]." Researchers compared 20 people who had recently fallen in love, 20 unmedicated OCD patients, and 20 controls. The evidence they gathered suggests that the density of serotonin (5-HT) transporter is similarly low in people with OCD and people in the first stages of love. At last, concrete information that being in love "induces a state which is not normal"—as if slobbering on photographs and spontaneously breaking into song-and-dance routines had not laid the question to rest. One of the authors, psychiatrist Hagop Akiskal, sees the iron hand of evolution at work. "Without intense emotion," he says, "no one in their 'right' mind would fall in love and have children."

The psychology prize went to the researchers responsible for "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments," a report published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology [4]. When asked if anyone felt threatened by his report, author David Dunning of Cornell University replied, "No, they'd always say that they knew people like that." Marc Abrahams summed it up at the ceremony with his signature benediction. "If you didn't win an Ig Nobel Prize tonight—and especially if you did—better luck next year."


An award-winning
biologist fed Prozac to


Falling in love affects
the serotonin
transporter much like
severe OCD.



©2000 Praxis Press Inc., all rights reserved.

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