Military wins Ig Nobel peace prize for 'gay bomb'
By Jeff Hecht US military plans to create a weapon that would put a new twist on the slogan “make love, not war” were among the many off-beat ideas honoured at the 2007 Ig Nobel awards. A study of jet-lagged hamsters, some “bottomless” soup bowls, and an in-depth examination of sword-swallowing also earned prizes. The tongue-in-cheek awards are organised by the humorous scientific journal the Annals of Improbable Research for research achievements “that make people laugh – then think”. The ceremony, held at Harvard University, is traditionally attended by several real Nobel laureates, including one who swept paper airplanes from the stage for several years before receiving the Nobel prize in Physics. The Ig Nobel peace prize went to the US Air Force’s Wright Laboratory in Ohio for its 1994 plan to develop a weapon that would make enemy soldiers sexually irresistible to one another, an idea later dubbed the “gay bomb”. Details of the scheme were uncovered in a declassified document (pdf) that suggests a strong aphrodisiac would be “completely non-lethal” but could be seriously disruptive “especially if the chemical also caused homosexual behaviour.” Other ideas put forward in the document include chemical weapons that would attract angry or aggressive bugs, or that would give enemy troops “severe and lasting halitosis”, thus making it hard for them to blend in with civilians. Another substance with a well-known sexual effect was the focus for the Ig Nobel aviation award. Diego Golombek, Patricia Agostino, and Santiago Plano of the National University of Quilmes in Argentina won the Ig Nobel aviation prize for a study showing that a hamster-sized dose of Viagra can help the rodents recover from jet-lag. The researchers found that Viagra shifted the animal’s circadian rhythms back to normal after simulated time-zone changes induced with intervals of light and dark in the laboratory (Proceedings National Academy of Sciences, vol 104, p 9834). The dose needed to help people recover from jet lag would be smaller than used for treating erectile dysfunction, which is fortunate as this is probably not a condition many men would want cured during a long airline flight. The Ig Nobel nutrition prize was awarded for research involving some apparently “bottomless” soup bowls. Brian Wansink, a marketing professor at Cornell University, in New York State, US, wondered if the amount of food on someone’s plate might affect their appetite as much as the amount in their stomach. So he rigged up some “bottomless” soup bowls with tubes hidden beneath the table to keep them topped. He found that volunteers eating from these bottomless bowls consumed 70% more than normal (Obesity Research, vol 13, p 93). Brian Witcombe, a radiologist at Gloucestershire Royal NHS Trust received the Ig Nobel prize in medicine for his study of sword swallowing and its side effects. His interest was piqued by an X-ray of a sword swallower, which made the sword look further forward in the body than expected, and began investigating searching the medical literature for more information. The literature yielded only a single report of injury, but Witcombe says he “got sucked into this rather amusing exchange of [e-mail] communications” with Dan Meyer, a Tennessee-based sword swallower, who had created a large database on the subject. This conversation led to the joint paper in the British Medical Journal (vol 333, p 1285). The most common problem for sword swallowers is “sword throat,” a soreness that develops when they are learning the trick. But Witcombe and Meyer could find no documented fatalities caused by swallowing swords – excluding internet reports of people who swallowed neon tubes, spear guns, or jackhammers. “The big question is why the hell they do it,” Witcombe says. Chemistry – Mayu Yamamoto of the International Medical Center of Japan received a prize for producing synthetic vanilla from cow dung. Most synthetic vanilla now comes from petrochemicals, but cow dung is also rich in lignin, so Yamamoto thought turning some of it into “vanilla” would cut into Japan’s cow dung mountain. Linguistics – This Ig Nobel prize went to Juan Toro, Josep Trobalon, and Núria Sebastián-Gallés of the University of Barcelona for a paper titled “Effects of backward speech and speaker variability in language discrimination by rats”. They found that rats could recognize the rhythmic differences between Dutch and Japanese sentences, but not if the words were replayed backwards (Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, vol.31, p.95). Biology – Johanna van Bronswijk of the Eindhoven University of Technology earned the Ig Nobel biology prize by vacuuming up insects, mites, spiders, crustaceans, bacteria, and fern spores from Dutch mattresses, to survey all the tiny beasties lurking in the average bed. More on these topics: