A weird and wonderful world of discovery


HAVE YOU ever read about a piece of health- related research and wondered what on Earth possessed anyone to ask that question in the first place?

There’s often method to the seeming madness of the quirkier studies, but it’s fun every so often to sit and gather these gems into one spot and marvel at their bizarre qualities.

The Ig Nobel awards is usually a good place to go hunting for oddities – the annual prizes celebrate improbable research that makes you laugh and then think.

This year’s crop threw up answers to some pressing questions – the 2011 prize in physics celebrates a study from 2000 on why discus throwers report dizziness but hammer throwers don’t.

Researchers from France and The Netherlands pondered this apparent paradox: was the lack of dizziness in the hammer event down to the sensitivity of the thrower? Or could it have something to do with the type of throw?

The researchers interviewed 22 high-level athletes who threw hammer, discus or both (though presumably not at the same time) and found that yes, throwing the discus could have its downsides.

“Discomfort was reported by 59 per cent of the sportsmen while throwing discus, but by none while throwing hammer,” they note in the journal Acta Oto-laryngologica.

So the researchers pored over slow-motion video footage of throws, closely watching the head and feet and how visual bearings could be used.

And where did this endeavour take them? To the conclusion, and the paper’s title, that “dizziness in discus throwers is related to motion sickness generated while spinning” and that “crucial differences in the specific execution of each sport are responsible for the dizziness experienced by discus throwers”.

Just in case you had been wondering.

Another twinkling jewel in the Ig Nobel treasure chest this year was a US and Australian study that asked participants to drink water every 15 minutes until they were bursting, to use the vernacular.

“In healthy adults, the retention of urine is associated with increased bladder pressure that can lead to sensations of pain,” point out the researchers this year in Neurology and Urodynamics.

Could this uncomfortable sensation have an effect on cognitive function? To find out, the study asked the eight fluid-filled volunteers to carry out cognitive tests while they had “an extreme urge to void” – as it is delicately described.

And they found that the sensation “reduced the speed with which healthy adults could make decisions on the basis of available visual information or when information had to be retrieved from working memory”.

Meanwhile, a group in The Netherlands also looked at the effects of a full bladder on how we make decisions, and concluded that “inhibitory spillover” from increasing levels of bladder pressure could improve impulse control in other tasks.

But enough hopping from foot to foot – why not try leaning left and see if that changes your perspective on numbers? Believe it or not, there’s a study for that.

A team in Erasmus University Rotterdam asked participants to stand on a Wii balance board and maintain a straight posture as they answered questions with a numerical slant. For each one, the volunteer had to hazard a guess about a number, such as the height in metres of the Eiffel Tower, how many lakes are in Finland and the alcohol content of whiskey.

But the researchers had rigged the setup so that, in some cases, the participants were leaning to the left or right when the Wii told them they were standing straight.

Their paper in Psychological Sciencethis year explains the rationale for the experiment. “According to the mental-number-line theory, people mentally represent numbers along a line with smaller numbers on the left and larger numbers on the right,” write the researchers.

“We hypothesised that surreptitiously making people lean to the right or to the left would affect their quantitative estimates.”

And indeed they found that when leaning to the left, the volunteers tended to err on the low side when giving numerical answers.

“Estimates were significantly smaller when participants leaned to the left than when they leaned to the right,” the researchers state in the paper called Leaning to the Left Makes the Eiffel Tower Seem Smaller.

Other unusual fish hauled in 2011’s trawl of stories include 3D printing technology being developed at Cornell Creative Machines Lab to print out food, the potential for a sunscreen tablet inspired by algae that help protect coral reefs from UV rays and even how yawns seem to be more contagious between friends and family rather than between strangers.

But to round off, let’s be sucked in again by the gravitational pull of the Ig Nobel awards: the 2011 prize for public safety went to John Senders of the University of Toronto for conducting in the 1960s “a series of safety experiments in which a person drives an automobile on a major highway while a visor repeatedly flaps down over his face, blinding him”.

It’s a strange job, but someone has to do it.