Pointless progress

Swallowing swords bad, Italian pizza good, science says


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Every year, scientists around the world unveil discoveries that are so surprising they leave observers feeling, well, totally surprised.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/10/2019 (1065 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Every year, scientists around the world unveil discoveries that are so surprising they leave observers feeling, well, totally surprised.

Some days, however, well-meaning scientists trumpet studies that are — how can we put this — marginally less earth-shattering.

For instance, a team of researchers from Duke University made headlines earlier this month with a study that discovered people who walk more slowly in midlife are probably aging more rapidly than people who walk faster.

We know what you are thinking. You are thinking: “Science has proven fast walkers are healthier than slow walkers? DUH!”

The researchers tested the walking speed of about 1,000 45-year-olds and found the slow walkers showed signs of accelerated aging on a number of different measures — they looked older; their lungs, teeth and immune systems were in worse shape; and they tended to have smaller brains than the fast walkers.

It’s interesting, but arguably not all that shocking, which could make the study a potential candidate for an Ig Nobel Prize, the spoof awards handed out every year in a gala ceremony at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre for scientific achievements “that make people laugh, and then think.”

They have handed out 10 of the prizes every September since 1991 — the ceremony includes a little girl who cries out: “Please stop: I’m bored!” if speakers go on too long — and today’s well-researched list features Five Not So Famous But Highly Amusing Ig Nobel Winners:

5) The “major” discovery: Pizza can ward off early death

Michael Dwyer / The Associated Press files Matthew Rockloff (left) and Nancy Greer won an Ig Nobel Economics Prize for their experiments to see how contact with a live crocodile affects a person’s willingness to gamble.

Behind the “science”: Italian scientist Silvano Gallus was pretty pumped last month when he received the 2019 Ig Nobel Prize for medicine for “collecting evidence that pizza might protect against illness and death, if the pizza is made and eaten in Italy.”

Not surprisingly, Gallus, who heads the laboratory of lifestyle epidemiology at the Istituto di Ricerche Farmacologiche Mario Negri in Milan, wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a pizza to the tongue-in-cheek awards ceremony. The epidemiologist said he was delighted to receive his certificate, trophy and 10 trillion Zimbabwean dollars (which are no longer in use) from a genuine Nobel laureate.

“I am honoured to have obtained this achievement for a bizarre but important award,” he told a packed audience. “A good pizza comprises all the virtues of the Mediterranean diet.” The scientist, who has led three studies on the health benefits of the iconic Italian dish, explained pizza can help prevent heart attacks and some forms of cancer, provided the ingredients are Mediterranean and not as he termed, “made according to foreign interpretations.”

Before, as is customary, having his speech cut off by the little girl complaining of being bored, he managed to say: “What did we find in our research? We found that analyzing data from a combination of large Italian epidemiological studies, we found that people who regularly consumed pizza had a decreased risk of digestive cancer and myocardial infarction.” He said pizza consumption was indicative of following the so-called Mediterranean diet, which has been linked to a healthier lifestyle.

“Our interpretation is that pizza may represent a general indication, a marker, of the Italian diet that, as other Mediterranean diets (have), has been shown to have major health benefits,” Gallus said. “In conclusion, we recommend eating Italian pizza, but please, please hold the pepperoni for health reasons,” he added.


4) The “major” discovery: Holding a live crocodile affects a person’s willingness to gamble

Behind the “science”: Most of us have probably never taken a large reptile to a local casino, but it might be time to give that notion serious consideration. We say that because a pair of Australian researchers who investigated the link between holding a saltwater crocodile and risky gambling behaviour were “honoured” with the 2017 Ig Nobel Prize for economics.

Prof. Matthew Rockloff and Nancy Greer from Central Queensland University received the award for a 2010 study, which looked at how people tweaked their gambling habits before or after holding a one-metre-long saltwater crocodile. “The crocodile study was really about trying to get a sneaky way of arousing people before they gambled so they wouldn’t recognize their own emotional state, that they’re physiologically aroused,” Rockloff told ABC News.

The way it worked was visitors to Queensland’s Koorana Crocodile Farm were asked to gamble money on a simulated poker machine immediately after they held the feisty reptile. According to ABC, the team wanted to look at how the emotional state of the gambler changed things like the speed of their bet, the size of their bet and the final payout. The study appeared in the Journal of Gambling Studies under the headline: “Never smile at a crocodile: Betting on electronic gaming machines is intensified by reptile-induced arousal.” They found problem gamblers who were excited about holding the croc felt more “lucky” and made larger bets, whereas those who didn’t enjoy holding the croc were more cautious in their gambling.

But why crocodiles? “I was casting around in Central Queensland for things that were exciting. There’s not a lot exciting in Central Queensland,” he said. “I had this vague feeling, even when I was doing the study, I said, ‘Well gee — this might be a really good one for the Ig Nobels.’ I certainly realized how quirky the study was,” he said.


3) The “major” discovery: The wasabi fire alarm

Behind the “science”: If you’ve ever been to a sushi restaurant and slathered too much wasabi on a California roll, you will know the pungent green paste can make your eyes water and your tongue feel as if it has come in contact with a star as it goes supernova.

In 2011, a team of Japanese scientists harnessed the power of the Japanese horseradish to claim the Ig Nobel Prize for chemistry. Researcher Makoto Imai and a team from Japan’s Shiga University of Medical Science were singled out by the science humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research, which helped create the satiric prizes in 1991. They were recognized for “determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi (pungent horseradish) to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency, and for applying this knowledge to invent the wasabi fire alarm.” Their invention discharges an airborne wasabi spray that is potent enough to rouse deep sleepers. “People with hearing difficulties may fail to wake up with noise or flashing lights, and another mode of communication may be necessary to save their lives,” Imai told National Geographic.

“The wasabi alarm is not a smell but a stinging sensation to the upper airways.” Airborne wasabi concentrations of up to 20 parts per million are strong enough to awaken sleepers via stinging noses and watery eyes, Imai said, but not so strong that the effect hinders people’s ability to get to safety efficiently. For their tests — which, fortunately, we did not take part in — Imai and his team filled canisters of the compound, waited until test subjects were deeply asleep, then filled the room with wasabi gas.

“Of the 14 test subjects—including four who were deaf — 13 woke within two minutes. (It turned out that the 14th person had a blocked nose). The team actually tested about 100 odours, including rotten eggs. Wasabi stood alone as the premier waker-upper,” according to Popular Mechanics magazine. A Tokyo-based company, Seems Inc., used the research to develop the alarm, which has been available since 2009 for about $600.


2) The “major” discovery: Sword swallowing can be dangerous

Elise Amendola / The Associated Press files Silvano Gallus, of Italy, waves as he receives the Ig Nobel award in medicine for collecting evidence that pizza might protect against illness and death, if the pizza is made and eaten in Italy, at the 29th annual Ig Nobel awards ceremony at Harvard University on Sept. 12, in Cambridge, Mass.

Behind the “science”: As hard as this might be to believe, thrusting a large, sharp metal object down your throat poses certain inherent hazards. Pointing out that rather obvious conclusion was enough to win a British radiologist, Brian Witcombe, and a famed American sword swallower, Dan Meyer, the 2007 Ig Nobel Prize for medicine.

Witcombe, a consultant radiologist at Gloucestershire Royal Hospital, and Meyer, president and founder of the Sword Swallowers Association International, were honoured for “their penetrating medical report, Sword Swallowing and its Side Effects, which was published to almost no fanfare in the British Medical Journal — maybe because it appeared right around Christmas and people were too busy swallowing Yorkshire pudding and opening prezzies to pay much attention to the findings.” The pair studied 110 sword swallowers from 16 countries and discovered (brace yourselves for a shock) they are at a higher risk of injury than someone who, for instance, does not swallow swords for a living.

Here are their results from the BMJ: “Major complications are more likely when the swallower is distracted or swallows multiple or unusual swords or when previous injury is present. Perforations mainly involve the esophagus and usually have a good prognosis. Sore throats are common, particularly while the skill is being learnt or when performances are too frequent. Major gastrointestinal bleeding sometimes occurs, and occasional chest pains tend to be treated without medical advice. Sword swallowers without health-care coverage expose themselves to financial as well as physical risk.”

Sore throats are common? Who knew? During their one-minute speech, Meyer, who holds multiple records such as most swords swallowed simultaneously underwater (two), gulped down a blade. And that’s when the speech was cut off.


1) The “major” discovery: The nuclear barbecue cookout

Mary Altaffer / The Associated Press files Sword swallower Dan Meyer prepares to cut the shrunken head ribbon during the grand opening celebration of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Odditorium in 2007 in New York’s Times Square.

Behind the “science”: For the record, there is nothing this columnist loves more than grilling meat on the propane barbecue in his backyard. Which is why the No. 1 spot on today’s list of scientific achievements that must never be repeated goes to George Goble, a systems engineer and resident genius at Purdue University’s Engineering Computer Network.

In 1996, Goble rocketed to fame when he was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in chemistry for — someone hand us a tissue — setting the “blistering world record time for igniting a barbecue grill — three seconds, using charcoal and liquid oxygen.” Here’s what George said back in the day: “The whole thing started with my job at the annual picnic of the Engineers Honorary Society. I cook the burgers and, being an engineer, I’m always looking for ways to speed up the heating process of the charcoal. I started with hair dryers. Then it was vacuum cleaners set to blow. Then propane torches.”

But the pinnacle of his research came when he introduced liquid oxygen into the mix. Here’s how Popular Mechanics describes its favourite Ig Nobel winner: “His trick was to use liquid oxygen, a fuel typically utilized by NASA to propel rockets into orbit. Goble piled 60 pounds of charcoal onto a grill and doused it with three gallons of liquid oxygen. (It) burned within three seconds, and, Goble says, the hamburgers were slightly overdone.” At the time, Goble released video of himself using a three-metre-pole to douse the charcoal and a smouldering cigarette with the liquid oxygen. Thanks to the resulting fireball, he was reportedly warned by the West Lafayette, Ind., Fire Department to never let them catch him with the substance near a barbecue ever again.

His biggest honour was being immortalized in a 1995 column by famed humour columnist Dave Barry, who wrote: “This is the form of oxygen used in rocket engines; it’s 295 degrees below zero and 600 times as dense as regular oxygen. In terms of releasing energy, pouring liquid oxygen on charcoal is the equivalent of throwing a live squirrel into a room containing 50 million Labrador retrievers… The charcoal was ready for cooking in — this has to be a world record — three seconds.” Unless you wish to vaporize your neighbourhood — and your Labrador retriever — do NOT try this at home!


Supplied George Goble of Purdue University won the 1996 Ig Nobel in chemistry. He set the world record in barbecue grill ignition — three seconds — using charcoal and liquid oxygen.
Doug Speirs

Doug Speirs

Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.

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