The (Ig) Nobel Prizes


What do you get when you study how to be good at procrastinating – but then actually uncover insight into the human psyche?

You get science that “makes people laugh…. and then think.”

Those are also the criteria to win an Ig Nobel prize, an annual contest that draws thousands of nominees to compete for the honor of having the best funny-yet-thought-provoking research. Is this tongue-in-cheek award simply a way to poke fun at scientists?  Or does it actually uncover an important principle about how we do research?

Here are some examples from Ig Nobel winners that show that even the silliest sounding science can be surprisingly significant.

Glanzmann thrombasthenia is a platelet disorder that can cause life-threatening nose bleeds.  Several medical therapies have been attempted, including drugs that block the activity of plasmin, thus preventing the degradation of plasma proteins and blood clots.  Surgical therapies, such as using lasers to coagulate blood vessels, have also been tried.  While these methods have sometimes been successful, they are not universally so.

Treating an uncontrollable bloody nose. Photo: Ig Nobel Prize

A case study a few years ago examined a patient with this disease, for whom none of the conventional medical or surgical techniques were working.  In a final effort, her doctors placed strips of salted pork, of all things, inside her nose to stop the bleeding.  The strips were applied for 3 days, and at the time this case study was published – 10 months after the event – the patient had not had a nosebleed since.

Crazy, right?  Maybe not.  From the 1800s to the mid-1900s, salt pork was commonly used for uncontrollable nose bleeds due to the salt’s effects on edema.  The method declined in popularity in favor of more modern methods (which also had a lower risk of infection), but they were still on to something.  Clearly, going back in history and using time-proven remedies can surpass even modern medicine in tough cases.  This Ig Nobel, while amusing, also serves as a reminder that traditional medicine often has important principles that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Music is good for the soul… and apparently for the heart as well.  A recently study looked at the seemingly arbitrary relationship between listening to opera music and survival after a heart transplant.  They found that mice who listened to opera music had increased levels of anti-inflammatory cytokines and prolonged survival.  (These mice presumably cannot understand Italian, so it’s the melody rather than the lyrics that must do the trick.)  Classical or New Age music did not have the same effect.  Perhaps heart transplant patients should be given tickets to Madama Butterfly.

Lastly, a paper from the 70’s looked into why woodpeckers don’t get – wait for it – headaches.  Turns out, their brains are packed in their skulls differently from ours, in a way that protects them from brain injury after head-on impact.  It seemed like a silly thing to study at the time, but is now getting more attention with new research about the concussions football players suffer during the sport.  A relatively obscure finding decades ago may now be extremely important for the well-being of high school and college players with developing brains.

The Ig Nobel prizes are lighthearted and fun, but are also a commentary about why we should fund basic science at all.  The principle of making you “laugh and then think” proves that we can’t know ahead of time what scientific information will ultimately be useful.  The classical example in biology is of a scientist studying an obscure species of jellyfish just for fun, and happening upon a fluorescent protein which is now an invaluable part of cutting edge medical research.  Knowledge in and of itself is a positive thing, even if we can’t see it yet. 

Think you have what it takes to win an Ig Nobel?  For The PhDish’s first online contest, submit an idea for a scientific study that would first make you laugh but then think.  Click here to submit your entry! A winner will be announced in the next issue!