Tackling weird science so you don't have to
MEDICAL MATTERS:Minimising the risk of explosion during test, wrtes MUIRIS HOUSTON
IT’S THAT time of year again. The annual Ig Nobel awards ceremony, a celebration of quirky scientific research, took place at Harvard University last week. Hosted by the journal Annals of Improbable Research, the Igs are an annual exercise in irreverence that celebrate scientific studies which “cannot, or should not, be repeated”.
The awards honour science that “first makes you laugh and then makes you think”.
Now in its 22nd year, Ig Nobel is an obvious play on the terms “ignoble” and “Nobel” from Alfred Nobel, and is a parody of the Nobel Prizes to be announced next month.
The prize that seemed to attract most attention this year was the physics category. Researchers came up with an equation to predict the shape hair will take when it is drawn behind the head and tied together in a ponytail. Along with a measurement called the Rapunzel Number, the equation will apparently be of relevance to the developers of hair products.
Personally I feel on firmer ground with the anatomy, psychology and medicine prizes. Dutchman Frans De Waal and his US colleague Jennifer Pokorny triumphed in the anatomy section for their discovery that chimpanzees can identify other chimpanzees individually by seeing pictures of their rear ends. I can’t wait to see how the marketing agencies work that particular angle into the next PG Tips ad campaign.
The Netherlands also triumphed in the psychology category. The researchers nipped down to Paris to prove a theory about how people look at numbers. They found they could make people wrongly guess the height of the Eiffel Tower when they were leaning to the left or right.
Psychologists believe we have a mental number line under which we tend to represent smaller numbers on the left and larger ones on the right. The Dutch researchers found the number line could be activated in volunteers who stood on tilting platforms; they consistently guessed smaller numbers for the height of the Paris landmark when they were tilted to the left.
With just the tiniest hint of bias, I found the medicine prize the most interesting. It was awarded to French and Greek doctors who came up with advice for doctors on how to minimise the risk of patients exploding while undergoing colonoscopy. Now this is important. As if the tribulations of preparing your bowel for perhaps the most ignominious test doctors perform on a routine basis is not bad enough, it turns out there is a very rare (but real) chance of your intestines blowing up during the procedure. In fact, the researchers came up with 20 cases from the medical literature; of these, nine resulted in bowel perforation and one poor individual died.
The culprits are colonic gases – hydrogen, methane and oxygen – which when present in sufficient concentrations just need the spark from an electrocautery probe for the dreaded “boom” to occur. In a paper in the World Journal of Gastroenterology, Emmanuel Ben Soussan and his colleagues conclude an explosion can be prevented “by meticulous bowel preparation”.
Please remember this when you are tempted to take a short cut from the admittedly awful experience of prepping your bowel prior to colonoscopy.
This is wickedly described as follows by comedian Dave Barry: “The instructions for MoviPrep, clearly written by somebody with a great sense of humour, state that after you drink it, ‘a loose, watery bowel movement may result . . . ’
“This is kind of like saying that after you jump off a roof, you may experience contact with the ground.
“MoviPrep is a nuclear laxative; I don’t want to be too graphic here, but, have you ever seen a space shuttle launch? This is pretty much the MoviPrep experience, with you as the shuttle. There are times when you wish the commode had a seat belt.”
Even humour fails to sugar-coat the picture. However, do you really want to add to the space-shuttle experience by suffering a launch failure in the form of an internal explosion? I mean, could anything be more ignoble than that?