How to keep colonoscopy patients from exploding, and other winners from the 2012 Ig Nobel Awards

Colonoscopies sometimes end with intestinal detonation, or what's known in more official circles as a "colonic gas explosion." Never heard of it? Neither had we. That was until last night, when a team of international researchers was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine for advising doctors who perform such procedures how to minimize the chances of their patients going boom.

If that sounds like an unusual thing to win an award for, that's because it is. Then again, the Ig Nobels aren't your typical awards ceremony. Created to honor those achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think, last night's "22nd first-annual" Ig Nobel awards were as unconventional and decidedly un-stuffy as ever — and this year's winners did not disappoint.

The Ig Nobels are the brainchild of Marc Abrahams, editor of the scientific humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research. Held every year in Harvard University's historic Sanders Theatre, "The Igs" are modeled loosely after the actual Nobel Prize ceremonies, which are held every year in Stockholm, Sweden. Very loosely. Like the Nobel Prize ceremony, the Ig Nobels acknowledge scientists, artists and public figures for contributing toward their respective fields. Also like the actual Nobel ceremony, you tend to find genuine Nobel Laureates in attendance, the difference being that, at the Igs, audience members are encouraged to pelt the esteemed researchers with paper airplanes.


The Nobel Laureates don't take this abuse lying down:

Illustration for article titled How to keep colonoscopy patients from exploding, and other winners from the 2012 Ig Nobel Awards

Harvard University Clowes Professor of Science Robert Kirshner, left, and Nobel laureates Dudley Herschbach (Chemistry, 1986 - pictured at center) and Rich Roberts (Physiology or Medicine, 1993) sling paper airplanes back at the audience at last night's Ig Nobel Prize ceremony | Photo via AP

But set aside the presence of actual Nobel laureates and the overall structure of award distribution, and you're left with basically zero similarities between the Stockholm Nobel ceremony and its Cambridge knockoff. To call the Igs unconventional, would be a monumental understatement.


If an Ig Nobel winner's acceptance speech lasts longer than 60 seconds, a pair of 8-year-old girls descends upon the podium to shout "PLEASE STOP, I'M BORED" at the top of their lungs. The mere mention of the word "Universe" — the theme of this year's ceremony — sends the audience into fits of hooting and hollering. Bookending the stage are a man and a woman, each wielding a flash light, clad in skimpy silver bathing suits and slathered head-to-toe in silver body paint that is uncannily reminiscent of Lindsay Fünke's diamond cream:

Illustration for article titled How to keep colonoscopy patients from exploding, and other winners from the 2012 Ig Nobel Awards

And then there are the Ig Nobel Prize-winners. This year's awardees included a team of Dutch researchers, who won the psychology prize for studying why leaning to the left makes the Eiffel Tower appear smaller. Two Japanese researchers were awarded the prize in acoustics for creating a speech-jamming gun that can stop a person mid-sentence by playing their words back to them on a slight delay.


Our personal favorite? This year's Literature Prize, which went to the U.S. Government General Accountability Office "for issuing a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports."

Those of you who missed the live broadcast, be sure to check out the video recording of the ceremonies featured up top (skip to the 48 minute mark for the start of the ceremony). You can also tune into NPR's Science Friday program the day after Thanksgiving for their annual broadcast of the event.


The full list of 2012 Ig Nobel Prizes and award recipients can be found below.

The 2012 Ig Nobel Prize Winners

PSYCHOLOGY PRIZE: Anita Eerland and Rolf Zwaan [THE NETHERLANDS] and Tulio Guadalupe [PERU, RUSSIA, and THE NETHERLANDS] for their study "Leaning to the Left Makes the Eiffel Tower Seem Smaller"
REFERENCE: "Leaning to the Left Makes the Eiffel Tower Seem Smaller: Posture-Modulated Estimation," Anita Eerland, Tulio M. Guadalupe and Rolf A. Zwaan, Psychological Science, vol. 22 no. 12, December 2011, pp. 1511-14.


PEACE PRIZE: The SKN Company [RUSSIA], for converting old Russian ammunition into new diamonds.

ACOUSTICS PRIZE: Kazutaka Kurihara and Koji Tsukada [JAPAN] for creating the SpeechJammer - a machine that disrupts a person's speech, by making them hear their own spoken words at a very slight delay.
REFERENCE: "SpeechJammer: A System Utilizing Artificial Speech Disturbance with Delayed Auditory Feedback", Kazutaka Kurihara, Koji Tsukada, February 28, 2012.


NEUROSCIENCE PRIZE: Craig Bennett, Abigail Baird, Michael Miller, and George Wolford [USA], for demonstrating that brain researchers, by using complicated instruments and simple statistics, can see meaningful brain activity anywhere - even in a dead salmon.
REFERENCE: "Neural correlates of interspecies perspective taking in the post-mortem Atlantic Salmon: An argument for multiple comparisons correction," Craig M. Bennett, Abigail A. Baird, Michael B. Miller, and George L. Wolford, 2009.
REFERENCE: "Neural Correlates of Interspecies Perspective Taking in the Post-Mortem Atlantic Salmon: An Argument For Multiple Comparisons Correction," Craig M. Bennett, Abigail A. Baird, Michael B. Miller, and George L. Wolford, Journal of Serendipitous and Unexpected Results, vol. 1, no. 1, 2010, pp. 1-5.

CHEMISTRY PRIZE: Johan Pettersson [SWEDEN and RWANDA]. for solving the puzzle of why, in certain houses in the town of Anderslöv, Sweden, people's hair turned green.


LITERATURE PRIZE: The US Government General Accountability Office, for issuing a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports.
REFERENCE: "Actions Needed to Evaluate the Impact of Efforts to Estimate Costs of Reports and Studies," US Government General Accountability Office report GAO-12-480R, May 10, 2012.

PHYSICS PRIZE: Joseph Keller [USA], and Raymond Goldstein [USA and UK], Patrick Warren, and Robin Ball [UK], for calculating the balance of forces that shape and move the hair in a human ponytail.
REFERENCE: "Shape of a Ponytail and the Statistical Physics of Hair Fiber Bundles." Raymond E. Goldstein, Patrick B. Warren, and Robin C. Ball, Physical Review Letters, vol. 198, no. 7, 2012.
REFERENCE: "Ponytail Motion," Joseph B. Keller, SIAM [Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics] Journal of Applied Mathematics, vol. 70, no. 7, 2010, pp. 2667–72.


FLUID DYNAMICS PRIZE: Rouslan Krechetnikov [USA, RUSSIA, CANADA] and Hans Mayer [USA] for studying the dynamics of liquid-sloshing, to learn what happens when a person walks while carrying a cup of coffee.
REFERENCE: "Walking With Coffee: Why Does It Spill?" Hans C. Mayer and Rouslan Krechetnikov, Physical Review E, vol. 85, 2012.

ANATOMY PRIZE: Frans de Waal [The Netherlands and USA] and Jennifer Pokorny [USA] for discovering that chimpanzees can identify other chimpanzees individually from seeing photographs of their rear ends.
REFERENCE: "Faces and Behinds: Chimpanzee Sex Perception" Frans B.M. de Waal and Jennifer J. Pokorny, Advanced Science Letters, vol. 1, 99–103, 2008.


MEDICINE PRIZE: Emmanuel Ben-Soussan and Michel Antonietti [FRANCE] for advising doctors who perform colonoscopies how to minimize the chance that their patients will explode.
REFERENCE: "Colonic Gas Explosion During Therapeutic Colonoscopy with Electrocautery," Spiros D Ladas, George Karamanolis, Emmanuel Ben-Soussan, World Journal of Gastroenterology, vol. 13, no. 40, October 2007, pp. 5295–8.
REFERENCE: "Argon Plasma Coagulation in the Treatment of Hemorrhagic Radiation Proctitis is Efficient But Requires a Perfect Colonic Cleansing to Be Safe," E. Ben-Soussan, M. Antonietti, G. Savoye, S. Herve, P. Ducrotté, and E. Lerebours, European Journal of Gastroenterology & Hepatology, vol. 16, no. 12, December 2004, pp 1315-8.

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: We are now, in 2012, correcting an error we made in the year 1999, when we failed to include one winner's name. We now correct that, awarding a share of the 1999 physics prize to Joseph Keller. Professor Keller is also a co-winner of the 2012 Ig Nobel physics prize, making him a two-time Ig Nobel winner.
The corrected citation is: 1999 PHYSICS PRIZE: Len Fisher [UK and Australia] for calculating the optimal way to dunk a biscuit, and Jean-Marc Vanden-Broeck [UK and Belgium] and Joseph Keller [USA], for calculating how to make a teapot spout that does not drip.
REFERENCE: "Physics Takes the Biscuit", Len Fisher, Nature, vol. 397, no. 6719, February 11, 1999, p. 469.
REFERENCE: "Pouring Flows," Jean-Marc Vanden‐Broeck and Joseph B. Keller, Physics of Fluids vol. 29, no. 12, 1986, pp. 3958-61.


Top image via Shutterstock

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I love reading about the Ig Nobel results every year! And they're far from useless, despite their seemingly wacky nature.


Dr Warren, who is a researcher for Unilever in the UK, said he was thrilled to pick up his Ig.

"I'm amazed that a piece of work I've done has attracted so much attention," he told BBC News.

"My field, statistical physics, is not something that many will have heard of, so I'm really pleased we've done something that's caught the imagination."

His and his co-workers' research produced what has become known as the "Ponytail Shape Equation".

It takes into account the stiffness of the hair fibres on the head, the effects of gravity and the presence of the random curliness or waviness that is ubiquitous in human hair to model how a ponytail is likely to behave.

Together with a new quantity the team calls the Rapunzel Number, the equation can be used to predict the shape that hair will take when it is drawn behind the head and tied together.

"I've been working on this for a long time," said Dr Warren. "At Unilever, as you can imagine, there is a lot of interest because we sell a lot of haircare products. But there are wider applications where you have a lot of fibres coming together, such as in fabrics.

"I've also wondered if we can contribute something to the whole area of computer animation. Hair, for example, is something that is very hard to make look natural in animated movies."