Prizes scratch an itch for those who want to honour oblique and quirky research

Endorsement for the health benefits of pizza a cause for celebration

As a big fan of Italian food I was delighted to see a ringing endorsement for the health benefits of pizza recently.

Italian scientist Silvao Gallus was awarded a major international medical award for his research that concluded that eating pizza made with ingredients from the Mediterranean diet can protect from us from some chronic diseases.

Gallus, head of the laboratory of lifestyle epidemiology at the Istituto di Ricerche Farmacologiche Mario Negri in Milan, has led three studies on the health benefits of pizza, after which he concluded that the Italian dish helped prevent heart attacks and some forms of cancer.

Never mind that his award was one of this year's Ig Nobel prizes. A good natured parody of the Nobel Prizes, the Igs honour "achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think". A play on the words "ignoble" and "Nobel", the awards are presented at a light-hearted ceremony in Harvard University by actual Nobel winners. Described as "coming with little cash but much cachet", the Ig Nobels highlight oblique and quirky research.

Gallus has continued the work of Ancel Keys on the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet. Keys launched the pioneering "Seven Countries Study" which was one of the first to credit the Mediterranean diet with improving cardiovascular health. Subsequently, in a cancer prevention context, he wrote about the benefits of lycopene in tomato, antioxidants in extra virgin olive oil and vitamins in certain vegetables.

I also had a personal interest in the research that won this years Ig Nobel peace prize. A truly international collaboration, involving researchers from the UK, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and the US, it mapped out which parts of the body are most pleasurable to scratch.

Now I have always found a difficult to reach spot on my back as the one that offers the most (eventual) satisfaction. But the ankles ranked highest, the researchers found, and then the back and forearm.

They used cowhage (a plant known to make people itchy) to induce itches on the forearms, ankles, and backs of 18 participants, whom they then asked to rate both the intensity of the itch and the pleasure derived from scratching it.

Subjects felt ankle and back itches more intensely than those on their forearms, and they also rated ankle and back scratches higher on the pleasure scale. While pleasure levels dropped off for back and forearm itches as they were scratched, the same wasn’t true for ankle itches – participants still rated pleasurability higher even as the itchy feeling subsided.

Drug-resistant bacteria

I have written before about research showing that the trays used to transport belongings for security checks at airports have the highest concentration of bacteria found in a travel environment.

Well the Ig Nobel prize winners for economics added another layer to the vagaries of international travel when they looked at contamination of a range of currencies.

They found drug-resistant bacteria on the euro, US dollar, Canadian dollar, Croatian luna, Romanian leu, Moroccan dirham, and Indian rupee. The Romanian leu was the only one to yield all three types of bacteria tested – Staphylococcus aureus, E coli, and Vancomycin-resistant Enterococci. The Croatian luna produced none, and the other banknotes each produced one.

The authors suggest that the Romanian leu was most susceptible to bacterial growth because, in order to increase security and durability, it was the only banknote in the experiment made from polymers rather than textile-based fibres.

Why on earth would researchers want to know whether a man’s testicles are the same temperature? Having read the details of the anatomy Ig Nobel prize winner I’m still not sure. Maybe the fact that one of the authors has patented heated pants to help male contraception has something to do with it.

In any case it turns out that the left testicle is naturally warmer.

Good to know with winter approaching, I suppose.