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It’s Ig Nobel time again

By Dr Muiris Houston - 08th Oct 2023

ig nobel

This year’s awards for quirky scientific research didn’t disappoint

Ahh, one of my favourite annual events – the Ig Nobel awards have just been announced.  A parody of the very serious prizes named in honour of scientist and engineer Alfred Nobel, 10 ‘Ig Nobels’ are awarded to the teams around the globe behind the quirkiest, most bizarre achievements in scientific research. 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. Every winner “has done something that first makes people laugh, then makes them think”, according to Marc Abrahams, master of ceremonies (and Editor of the magazine Annals of Improbable Research).

Now running for over 30 years, I’m always curious to see if any of the winners surpass my favourite Ig Nobel of all time. This was for a study of cures for hiccups, which concluded the only guaranteed intervention was to place a digit in the rectum of the person afflicted.

There were a couple of candidates that caught my attention this year: The public health prize went to Dr Seung-min Park and colleagues for inventing the ‘Stanford toilet’, a device that uses a variety of technologies –  including a urinalysis dipstick test strip, a  vision system for defecation analysis, an analprint sensor paired with an identification camera, and a telecommunications link – to monitor and quickly analyse the substances that humans excrete.

The 2023 medicine Ig Nobel was a multinational effort using cadavers to explore whether there is an equal number of hairs in each of a person’s two nostrils.

The nostrils research is one in which I have a personal interest. As befits my age, in recent years I have become aware of unwanted foliage emerging from my proboscis. Ignoring these hairy infiltrators didn’t go down well with Mrs H, and so I became the puzzled owner of a piece of machinery which, at the flick of a switch, ensures the peeping hairs cease to cause social offence. Amazingly, it performs what I regard as minor surgery without causing any bloodshed. (It only occasionally causes a pained intake of breath.)

However, one of the puzzling things about nasal hair is that my nostrils are not equal opportunity employers. I am prompted each time to reach for my nasal hair remover by the populated state of my left nostril, compared to what I can only describe as a relative alopecia of my right one. At last, I thought, when I saw the latest list of Ig Nobels, an explanation for this is at hand.

The researchers found that, on average, the cadavers had around 120 nose hairs in their left nostril and 112 in the right one. So at least my unevenly split nasal hair count is in keeping with their findings, which they published in the International Journal of Dermatology last November. However, I was denied any deeper understanding by an expensive journal paywall.

A play on the words ‘ignoble’ and ‘Nobel’, the awards are presented at a light-hearted ceremony in Harvard University by actual Nobel winners

Did you know that, just like fingerprints, the creases in the lining of a person’s anus – known as analprint – are said to be unique? It comes as news to me courtesy of the experts who developed the Stanford toilet, who included cameras in their convenience in order to take photos of a person’s posterior to analyse these distinctive creases.

In addition to the anus, the cameras take pictures of stools to look for conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome.

The technology also comes with test strips that can detect substances such as glucose and red blood cells in the urine.

Accompanied by no less than four separate scientific publications, including: ‘Smart toilets for monitoring Covid-19 surges: Passive diagnostics and public health,’ NPJ Digital Medicine, Dr Park, Lead Author and an instructor of urology at Stanford’s School of Medicine, told the PA Media [news agency]: “Our bathrooms, often seen as the most private of spaces, have the potential to become the silent guardians of our health.”

And in true pioneering style, he declared that “the smart healthcare toilet is our vision of the next frontier in healthcare, where preventive healthcare melds effortlessly into our daily routines”.

But, in a parallel acknowledgement of people’s likely scepticism he told PA: “We might laugh at the thought of a smart healthcare toilet today, but with this recognition, it becomes evident that the potential for positive health impact, even in our most private moments, is immense.”

In what sounds suspiciously like the genesis of a marketing campaign for the novel toilet, Dr Park told the Ig Nobel award ceremony, “Don’t waste your waste!”

A noble thought on an ignoble occasion.

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