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Ig Nobel winners: Knuckle cracking to panda poo

Honored research includes findings that cracking your knuckles won't give you arthritis, panda feces are good for composting, and named cows produce more milk.

Have you ever worried that knuckle cracking will give you arthritis or wondered why pregnant women don't tip over? Me too.

Research into those topics--as well as studies finding that diamonds could be created from tequila and giant panda feces are good for composting--received Ig Nobel Prizes in a ceremony on Thursday night at Harvard University.

The prizes, awarded to scientific achievements that "cannot and should not be reproduced," are presented in the week before the real Nobel prizes are announced and are sponsored by the science humor magazine "Annals of Improbable Research."

A Thousand Oaks, Calif., doctor won the Ig Nobel medicine prize for his firsthand research into arthritis in fingers. As a child and in adulthood, Donald Unger's mother, several aunts, and mother-in-law warned him that cracking his knuckles would lead to arthritis in his fingers. To test that theory, he cracked the knuckles of his left hand, but not the right hand, every day for more than 60 years.

His conclusion? The cracking has no effect. (A chiropractor in San Francisco previously agreed with that notion in a very unscientific survey conducted by me.)

In Switzerland, the half-liter refillable beer bottle is commonly used as a weapon in bar fights and can crack a skull, researchers said. Stephan Bolliger/Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine

"There was no arthritis in either hand, and no apparent differences between the two hands," Unger wrote in a letter to the editor in Arthritis and Rheumatism, Vol. 41, No. 5, in 1998, after he had completed only 50 years of his study.

"This result calls into question whether other parental beliefs, e.g., the importance of eating spinach, are also flawed," he wrote. "Further investigation is likely warranted."

The Ig Nobel Prize for peace went to a group at the University of Bern in Switzerland for its bar room brawl-related research. The doctors, several of whom are forensic pathologists, had been asked to testify in court cases whether a skull can be broken by smashing a beer bottle on someone's head--and whether that is more easily accomplished with a full bottle or an empty one.

"Full and empty bottles suffice in breaking the skull. However, the likelihood of such fractures is greater in blows with an empty bottle. Empty beer bottles are therefore more dangerous," Dr. Stephan Bolliger wrote in an e-mail response to questions on Friday.

Asked whether certain beer brands might be more dangerous than others, Bolliger said, "The brand of the bottle is irrelevant, as the major breweries in Switzerland all use the same, recyclable half-liter bottles."

The research paper concludes that because half-liter beer bottles present "formidable weapons" in a fight, "prohibition of these bottles is therefore justified in situations which involve risk of human conflicts."

Meanwhile, other Ig Nobel-honored research suggests that farmers can benefit from improved human-bovine relations. Researchers at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom won the veterinary-medicine prize for their work showing that "Bessie" is likely to produce more milk than "No. 5863329."

"On farms where cows were called by name, milk yield was 258 liters higher than on farms where this was not the case," the researchers wrote in an abstract for their paper, "Exploring Stock Managers' Perceptions of the Human-Animal Relationship on Dairy Farms and an Association with Milk Production."

In Japan, researchers turned to a beloved animal for help in home waste reduction. A team at the Kitasato University Graduate School of Medical Sciences in Sagamihara won the biology prize for "demonstrating that kitchen refuse can be reduced more than 90 percent in mass by using bacteria extracted from the feces of giant pandas."

The physics prize went to researchers from the University of Cincinnati, the University of Texas, and Harvard for "analytically determining why pregnant women don't tip over" in their paper "Fetal Load and the Evolution of Lumbar Lordosis in Bipedal Hominins."

And in a modern-day alchemy experiment, researchers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico received the chemistry prize for turning tequila into diamonds. Well, maybe not exactly diamonds, but diamond films that could be an economical component in electrical insulators.

The public-health prize was awarded to inventors who received a patent for a brassiere that can be converted into a pair of gas masks.

There were also awards for findings that came of less research. The economics prize was awarded to officials from four Icelandic banks "for demonstrating that tiny banks can be rapidly transformed into huge banks, and vice versa--and for demonstrating that similar things can be done to an entire national economy."

The mathematics prize went to the governor of Zimbabwe's Reserve Bank for "giving people a simple, everyday way to cope with a wide range of numbers--from very small to very big--by having his bank print bank notes with denominations ranging from 1 cent to 100 trillion dollars."

And finally, the prize for literature was given to Ireland's police service for writing more than 50 traffic tickets to "the most frequent driving offender in the country--Prawo Jazdy--whose name in Polish means "Driver's License."