Training surgeons like dogs, study on pizza ‘cancer cure’ win 2019 Ig Nobels

Boston – The elite US university Harvard has awarded 10 scientific achievements with the Ig Nobel Prizes, the awards that are given to those who "make people laugh and then think."

The ceremony was held late Thursday with more than 1,000 guests in attendance – including some "bemused" real Nobel Prize winners, the organizers say.

This year’s winners included Italian researcher Silvano Gallus for his studies on whether pizza can help cure cancer, French scientists Roger Mieusset and Bourras Bengoudifa for their study entitled "Thermal Asynmetry of the Human Scrotum" on the temperature of postmen’s testicles and German psychologist Fritz Strack "for discovering that holding a pen in one’s mouth makes one smile, which makes one happier – and for then discovering that it does not."

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Shigeru Watanabe, of Japan, receives the Ig Nobel award in chemistry for estimating the total saliva volume produced per day by a typical five-year-old. Picture: AP Photo/Elise Amendola

As with every year, the prizes were handed out by real Nobel Prize winners: Eric Maskin, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2007, Rich Roberts, winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1993 and Jerry Friedman, Nobel laureate in Physics in 1990.

The Ig Nobel Prize winners received their traditional 10-trillion-dollar bill from Zimbabwe – which is worthless – and a handshake from the Nobel laureates.

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Audience members toss paper airplanes at the 29th annual Ig Nobel awards ceremony at Harvard University. Picture: AP Photo/Elise Amendola

Training surgeons is as easy as training dolphins or dogs.

At least according to a study that Thursday earned a 2019 Ig Nobel, the annual Nobel Prize spoof that rewards weird, odd and sometimes head-scratching scientific discoveries.

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Dr. Thomas Michael plays the accordion as the ensemble performs, "The Creatures of Habit Opera" at the 29th annual Ig Nobel awards ceremony at Harvard University. Picture: AP Photo/Elise Amendola

This year’s winners included: Dutch and Turkish researchers who figured out which nation has the yuckiest money, an Italian scientist who urges consumption of pizza for its health benefits, and an Iranian engineer who obtained a U.S patent for a diaper-changing machine.

Karen Pryor, Theresa McKeon and Dr. I. Martin Levy figured out that a common technique used for training animals called operant learning — or clicker training – can be used to make better surgeons.

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Andreas Voss, left, and his son Timothy Voss, of The Netherlands, receive the Ig Nobel award in economics for testing which country’s paper money is best at transmitting dangerous bacteria. Picture:  AP Photo/Elise Amendola

In short, a mechanical device that emits an audible click is used to reinforce positive behavior.

It’s not quite the same as giving a doctor a treat and a pat on the head, but it still works, said Pryor, a scientist, writer and animal trainer who has been using the technique for decades.

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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. Picture: AP Photo/Elise Amendola

"Traditionally, experienced surgeons will train the younger surgeons and they make it quite hard," which leads to tension and fear of failure, she said.

"With our method, they learned to use the tools with great confidence and calmness and turned them into calm, pleasant, serene people," she said.

The study published in 2015 by the journal Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research found that surgeons trained using the clicker method performed surgical procedures with better precision.

The awards at the 29th annual ceremony at Harvard University were handed out by real Nobel laureates, and as has become the tradition, featured the world premiere of a mini opera titled "Creatures of Habit."

The winners received $10 trillion Zimbabwean dollars, which is virtually worthless, and each was given one minute to deliver an acceptance speech enforced by an 8-year-old girl whining "Please stop. I’m bored."

This year’s shenanigans also included a tribute to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Roy Glauber, known for his humbleness and sense of humor, who for years attended the Ig Nobel ceremony and always helped sweep up afterward. He died in December at age 93.

Andreas Voss and his colleagues found that germophobes might want to avoid Romanian bank notes.

Their study concluded that three types of drug-resistant bacteria clung the longest to Romanian money when compared to several other international currencies, including the euro, U.S. and Canadian dollars and Indian rupees.

Romanians shouldn’t take offence at having the dirtiest money though.

The researchers said Romanian bank notes include a polymer fiber to discourage counterfeiting and improve durability, which allows the growth and transmission of drug resistant pathogens.

Voss, a professor at Radboud University Center for Infectious Diseases, Canisius-Wilhelmina Hospital, Nijmegen, the Netherlands, has a simple solution for people squeamish about handling paper money crawling with bacteria.

"Use plastic and electronic payment," he said via email. "Actually, I hardly ever use cash anymore."

The event was produced by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research and co-sponsored by the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association and the Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students.

AP

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