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Science awards highlight waiting game

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If you’ve heard the story of Ralph Steinman, then you’re probably wishing he’d just waited a few days more. Earlier this week, Steinman, a biologist at Rockefeller University in the United States, was awarded half of this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery of immune cells that help the body combat disease. Unfortunately, the researcher died just days before the announcement, which turned out to be a problem because unlike the Oscars, Nobel Prizes only go to living awardees.

The Nobel Foundation in Sweden decided to let the honor stand; as Steinman had been alive when he was selected for the award, they said, he was therefore eligible to receive it posthumously.

The announcement of the Nobelists in medicine marked the beginning of a weeklong event recognizing Nobel Prize winners in physics and chemistry, as well as in literature, economics and peace. Just days before these awards were announced however, a less formal ceremony held at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts honored researchers from around the world that had also demonstrated significant scientific impact by making people laugh first and then think about their work.

For example, the Ig Nobel award for Medicine was shared by two teams of researchers from Europe, the United States and Australia who showed how a person’s urgent need to empty his bladder may influence his thinking processes.

One team was led by Mirjam Tuk of the Netherlands’ University of Twente. Their study focused on how deep emotions might influence self-control decisions. One experiment from their study in the May issue of the journal Psychological Science began nearly an hour after participants from one group finished several cups of water each, while participants in the second group each had about a quarter-cup of water. All the participants were then asked questions involving money decisions such as would they prefer to receive a certain amount of money tomorrow or double that amount in two weeks.

The researchers found that a larger percentage of the group that had had a lot of water and were under a lot of what they termed “bladder pressure” opted to wait for the larger sum of money, curbing the urge to impulsively go for fast cash like several participants from the other group. Combined with the results of other experiments, the team concluded that “bladder control facilitates impulse inhibition.”

Another Ig Nobel, this time for Physiology, was awarded to another set of very patient European researchers this year. Anna Wilkinson, a researcher at the University of Lincoln in the United Kingdom, and her colleagues were recognized for their contribution toward understanding the cause of contagious yawning, a study that appeared on the cover of the August issue of the journal Current Zoology.

Studies have shown that when a person yawns, roughly half of the people around him or her are likely to yawn as well. It is not clear whether people are yawning because someone else did it first, because they are merely copying the yawner’s behavior or because they are empathizing with the yawner’s state of mind. To check the first option, Wilkinson and her colleagues decided to use “a species unlikely to show unconscious mimicry and empathy”—the red-footed tortoise.

For the study to work, the team had to teach a tortoise to yawn on cue—a process that took six months. The researchers then checked to see if, in the company of the yawning tortoise, other tortoises also yawned to see which of the three possible explanations might account for contagious yawning. While they said their findings rule out only one possible cause of this condition, the other options can’t be checked using tortoises.

E-mail the author at massie@massie.com.


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