To see if Coke really worked, Anderson, Umpierre and Hill mixed four different types of Coke with sperm in test tubes. A minute later, all sperm were dead in the Diet Coke, but 41% were still swimming in the just-introduced New Coke (The New England Journal of Medicine, vol 313, p 1351).
But that's not good enough, Anderson warns. Sperm "can make it into the cervical canal, out of reach of any douching solution, in seconds" – faster than anyone could shake and apply a bottle of Diet Coke.
The three researchers shared the chemistry prize with Chuang-Ye Hong of the Taipei Medical University in Taiwan and his colleagues, whose similar experiment found both Coca-Cola and its arch-rival Pepsi-Cola useless as spermicides (Human Toxicology, vol 6, p 395).
Another experiment with huge implications for health policy garnered the Ig Nobel medicine prize for Dan Ariely of Duke University in North Carolina.
While at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he gave two groups of volunteers identical placebos masquerading as painkillers, telling one group the pills cost $2.50 each and the other that the pills had been discounted to 10 cents each.
The volunteers didn't pay for the pills, but those who took the "more costly" fake medicine felt less pain from electric shocks than those who took the cheap fakes (Journal of the American Medical Association, vol 299, p 1016). Price affects people's expectations and thus their response to medicine, Ariely says – the more expensive the pill, the more relief they expect.
One Ig Nobel-winning experiment probing human nature has been featured in New Scientist: can women somehow signal when they are at their peak fertility? Most other female mammals do so openly, but men don't consciously recognise any such signal from women.
To investigate, University of New Mexico psychologists Geoffrey Miller, Joshua Tybur and Brent Jordan asked women working as lap dancers to report their nightly tips, and whether they were on hormonal contraceptives or menstruating naturally.
The two groups of women received similar tips when they were in non-fertile parts of their cycle, but when the naturally menstruating women reached their fertile days they earned significantly more (Evolution and Human Behavior, vol 28, p 375).
No tips were offered to the burrowing animals on archaeological sites studied by the two Brazilians who earned the archaeology prize. Serious archaeologists don't follow the Indiana Jones approach of grabbing stuff and running. They meticulously extract artefacts from the ground, noting their precise location in order to deduce their age and function. Unfortunately, local wildlife is not so careful.
To assess the damage done by burrowers, Astolfo Araújo of the University of São Paulo and José Marcelino of São Paolo's Department of Historical Heritage spray-painted potsherds and rocks four different colours and carefully buried them in separate layers of a test site. Then they turned an armadillo loose in the little patch of dirt for a couple of months. Sure enough, the armadillo jumbled up the fragments (Geoarchaeology, vol 18, p. 433).
Finally, recognising the achievements of ethics departments everywhere, the Ig Nobel peace prize went to the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biology "for adopting the principle that plants have dignity". In a document titled "The dignity of living beings with regard to plants", the committee concludes that causing "arbitrary harm" to plants is "morally impermissible". Home owners everywhere can thank the committee for the excuse to stop mowing the lawn and weeding the garden.
Ig Nobel Prize is 'knot funny'
We all know it and science has proved it - wires, string, and hair will inevitably tie themselves in knots. This astonishing non-revelation is one of 10 pieces of real research honoured this year with Ig Nobel Prizes. The spoof alternatives to the rather more sober Nobel prizes were presented in a ceremony at Harvard University.
Other winners included studies that showed coca cola was an effective spermicide; and that fleas on dogs jump higher than fleas on cats.
The much-coveted spoof prizes are said to reward scientific achievements which "cannot, or should not, be reproduced"; achievements that "first make people laugh, and then make them think". They are run by the science humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research.
Seven of the 10 winners this year paid their own way to receive their prizes at the famous US university.
All joined in the fun. Three Japanese scientists sang their acceptance speech for the award which honoured their research showing that slime moulds (amoeba-like organisms) can find their way through mazes.
Like the other winners, their study was genuine research published in a scientific journal - in their case, the prestigious journal Nature.
Charles Spence, from Oxford University, UK, walked away with the Nutrition Prize for showing how the way foods taste is affected by how they sound.
"When you play the sound of crisps when people bite into Pringles - if we change the sound as they eat, we can actually change how fresh, or how crisp, the Pringle tastes to people," he told BBC News.
"We've used [a bacon sizzling] sound to flip the flavour of bacon and egg ice cream. If we play that sound over the loudspeakers in the room, the ice cream will taste more 'bacony' than if you play the sound of, say, farmyard chickens."
The ceremony began with past Ig winner Dan Meyer - the co-author of a British Medical Journal study on Sword-swallowing and Its Side Effects - swallowing a sword.
Marc Abrahams, master of ceremonies and editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, closed the event with the traditional words: "If you didn't win an Ig Nobel Prize tonight - and especially if you did - better luck next year."
The full list of winners:
Nutrition: Massimiliano Zampini and Charles Spence for their study showing that food actually tastes better if it sounds crunchier.
Peace: The Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology and the citizens of Switzerland for adopting the legal principle that plants have dignity.
Archaeology: Astolfo Gomes de Mello Araujo and Jose Carlos Marcelino for demonstrating that armadillos can turn the contents of an archaeological dig upside down.
Biology: Marie-Christine Cadiergues, Christel Joubert and Michel Franc for showing that fleas on dogs can jump higher than fleas on a cats.
Medicine: Dan Ariely for demonstrating that expensive fake medicine is more effective than cheap fake medicine.
Cognitive Science: Toshiyuki Nakagaki, Hiroyasu Yamada, Ryo Kobayashi, Atsushi Tero, Akio Ishiguro and Agota Toth for demonstrating that slime moulds can solve puzzles.
Economics: Geoffrey Miller, Joshua Tyber and Brent Jordan for discovering that the fertility cycle of a lap dancer affects her tip-earning potential.
Physics: Dorian Raymer and Douglas Smith for proving that heaps of string or hair or almost anything else will inevitably tangle themselves up in knots.
Chemistry: Sheree Umpierre, Joseph Hill and Deborah Anderson for discovering that Coca-Cola is an effective spermicide (it was shared with C.Y. Hong, C.C. Shieh, P. Wu and B.N. Chiang who showed the opposite).
Literature: David Sims for his passionately written study "You Bastard: A Narrative Exploration of the Experience of Indignation within Organizations."
Obese diners choose convenience and overeating at Chinese buffets
When dining at Chinese Buffets, overweight individuals serve themselves and eat differently than normal weight individuals. This may lead them to overeat, according to a recent study by Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab. Compared to normal weight diners, overweight individuals sat 16 feet closer to the buffet, faced the food, used larger plates, ate with forks instead of chopsticks, and served themselves immediately instead of browsing the buffet.
"What's crazy is that these people are generally unaware of what they're doing – they're unaware of sitting closer, facing the food, chewing less, and so on," say Brian Wanink, lead author of this study and of the book "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think."
The study was published in the journal Obesity and includes observations of 213 diners at 11 all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant buffets across the country. Study participants included a range of normal weight to obese diners, none of whom were Asian. Major study findings include:
* 27% of normal-weight patrons faced the buffet compared to 42% of obese diners.
* Overweight diners sat an average of 16 feet closer than normal-weight diners.
* 16% of obese diners sat at a booth rather than a table compared to 38% of normal weight diners
* 71% of normal-weight diners browsed the buffet before serving themselves compared to 33% of obese diners
* 24% of normal-weight people used chopsticks compared with 9% of overweight people
"When food is more convenient people tend to eat more," say coauthor Collin R. Payne, New Mexico State University. "These seemingly subtle differences in behavior and environment may cause people to overeat without even realizing it."
Medical student gender and self-confidence
Females underestimate their abilities and males tend to overestimate theirs
INDIANAPOLIS – Despite performing equally to their male peers in the classroom and the clinic, female medical students consistently report decreased self-confidence and increased anxiety, particularly over issues related to their competency. A new study published in the September 2008 issue of Patient Education and Counseling found that female medical students also appeared less confident to patients.
"We observed third-year medical students interacting with individuals simulating patients and gave the students a battery of tests measuring non-verbal sensitivity. Female medical students self reported less self confidence than the male medical students and were also observed by trained raters to be less confident. Despite objective test performance that is equal to or greater than their male classmates there was something about the way in which the female medical students were observed and experienced their communication with patients that made them less confident" said the study's senior author Richard M. Frankel, Ph.D., professor of medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine and a Regenstrief Institute research scientist.
Observing the female medical students and finding that they actually appeared less confident in their interaction with patients than male counterparts answered the important question of whether women were simply more willing than men to admit that they are feeling anxious, stressed or that they lack confidence in their abilities.
Women now comprise more than half of the applicants to medical schools in the United States but medical educators may not be aware of gender differences in their student population, the study authors note.
"Our finding of decreased confidence among female medical students is important because it makes it very clear that somewhere in the training of future physicians, the issue of confidence needs to be addressed. Accomplishing this may be as straightforward as increasing faculty sensitivity and changing some simple learned behavior, but we will need more research to fully understand this phenomenon and its implications for medical education," said Dr. Frankel, a medical sociologist who studies both medical education and the doctor-patient relationship.
A literature survey by the study authors, which accompanied their observational report and analysis, shows that while there is no consistent gender difference in academic performance, female medical students tend to underestimate their abilities while males tend to overestimate theirs.
The literature survey also found that by the end of medical school, male students had achieved a greater level of identification with the role of doctor than female students with the same medical school experience. Interestingly, only female students reported thinking about confidence in their knowledge when asked to assess their identification with the role of doctor.
In a future study the research team hopes to observe how doctors’ confidence in their abilities change over time from medical school through residency training to medical practice.
Authors of the current study are Danielle C. Blanch and Judith A. Hall of Northeastern University, Debra L. Roter of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The study was funded by the Fetzer Institute of Kalamazoo, Mich.
Nerds rejoice: Braininess boosts likelihood of sex
* 15:57 03 October 2008
* NewScientist.com news service
* Ewen Callaway
Lonely men ought to flaunt their copies of New Scientist. Women looking for both one-night stands and long-term relationships go for geniuses over dumb jocks, according to a new study of hundreds of university students.
"Women want the best of both worlds. Not only a physically attractive man, but somebody in the long term who can provide for them," says Mark Prokosch, an evolutionary psychologist at Elon University in North Carolina, who led the study.
To many women, a smart man will appeal because he is likely to be clever enough to keep his family afloat. But he may also pass on "good" genes to his children, say Prokosch and his colleagues at the University of California, Davis.
Rather than ask women to rate qualities they seek in men, as other studies had done, Prokosch's team asked 15 college men to perform a series of tasks on camera.
The volunteers read news reports, explained why they would be a good date, and what would be the ramifications of the discovery of life on Mars. They also threw and caught a Frisbee to parade their physical appeal. Each potential suitor also took a quantitative test of verbal intelligence.
Smart is sexy
More than 200 women watched a series of these videos before rating each man's intelligence, attractiveness, creativity and appeal for a short-term or long-term relationship.
While the difference between short- and long-term mates may amount to a boozy decision students face each weekend, it has some evolutionary significance, Prokosch says. In potential husbands, women look for signs that a man might be a good provider and father. In one-night stands, women are on the prowl for little more than good genes, not to mention a good time.
Women proved to be decent judges of intelligence, with their scores generally matching each man's intelligence test results.
As for picking a bed-mate, the men's actual smartness proved a reliable indicator of their appeal for both brief hook-ups and serious relationships – which came as something of a surprise. Other studies have suggested that, for women anticipating short-term relationships, a man's braininess isn't foremost in their minds.
The disparate results may be due to women's lack of awareness that intelligence also affects the attractiveness of candidates for quick flings – how intelligent women perceived a man to be influenced his desirability as a long-term mate much more than his appeal for a one-night stand.
Bright and beautiful
Martie Haselton, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of California in Los Angeles, also notes that although women were good judges of intelligence, they weren't perfect. In many cases, women rated good hook-ups as dunces, when their intelligence scores indicated otherwise.
"There could be aspects of intelligence that we pick up on when we interact with a person and that affect our assessment of them, even if we wouldn't label it as intelligence," she says.
But some things never change. Looks were still a much more powerful predictor of sex appeal than brains. "Women are still going for the hunk," Prokosch says. "If you had an option to pick from five different people, you would pick the most attractive one."
So in a perfect world, women want a Nobel prize winner with movie-star looks. Creativity also proved to be a sought-after trait, and Prokosch's team is currently working on an objective measure of creativity, similar to the intelligence test they used.
However, in a world of limited resources, not every woman gets what she wants, and some are bound to fall for ugly, unintelligent and uncreative men. "There's always other people out there that find everything attractive," Prokosch says. Journal reference: Evolution and Human Behavior (DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.07.004)
Sick leave 'link to early death'
People who have long spells of sick leave for psychiatric reasons are twice as likely to die from cancer as healthier employees, research suggests.
The "unexpected" finding could help pick out at-risk groups, the University College London researchers reported in the British Medical Journal.
Among 6,500 civil servants, those who had taken a long period of sick leave had a 66% higher risk of early death.
The cancer risk may be due to depressed people not seeing a doctor soon enough.
Sickness records were assessed from London-based employees in 20 Whitehall departments between 1985 and 1988 and compared with mortality up until 2004.
Overall 288 people died during the study.
The 30% of people who had one or more stints of at least seven days off work had a 66% increased risk of premature death compared to those who had not had any long periods of sick leave, it was found.
The highest mortality risk was seen in those who had been off work with heart disease, stroke or related conditions who had more than four times the risk of premature death than those who had no long sickness absences.
Perhaps more surprisingly, absences due to common respiratory conditions and infections were also associated with an increased risk of death, the researchers said.
Study leader Jenny Head said it was the first time work absence for psychiatric reasons such as depression had been linked to death from cancer.
"That was the unexpected finding," she said.
"We didn't study the reason, but it might be people that tend to be depressed might be less likely to seek help from a doctor or being prone to depression could affect your cancer prognosis or depression might affect adherence to treatment."
She added: "It would be useful for this information to be collected because we could identify groups with high risk of serious health problems".
An accompanying editorial in the BMJ suggested that information on sickness absence could provide GPs with a useful tool to identify workers with an increased risk of serious illness or risk of death.
Employers could also use the information to target help for work-related health problems such as stress, it said.
Dr Stuart Whitaker, senior lecturer in occupational health at the University of Cumbria, said: "It would seem sensible to expect that those who do take longer and more frequent periods of sickness absence are suffering with more severe health problems, than those who do not go off sick, and might be expected to have higher premature death rates.
"This study helps to demonstrate that and goes further in being able to show the increased risk for different types of conditions."
However he added more work was needed to determine how occupational health services could identify those at high risk and what interventions they would then use to prevent early death.
Children aware of white male monopoly on White House
Youngest citizens say exclusion due to voter prejudice
AUSTIN, Texas—Challenging the idea that children live in a color or gender blind world, a new study from The University of Texas at Austin reveals most elementary-school-age children are aware there has been no female, African-American, or Hispanic President of the United States. And, many of the children attribute the lack of representation to discrimination.
Rebecca Bigler, professor of psychology, and a team of researchers at the university and the University of Kansas have published their findings in the October issue of the journal Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy.
During 2006, more than a year before Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama entered the presidential race, the researchers interviewed 205 children between the ages of five and 10 about their knowledge, attitudes and beliefs about the similarities among U.S. presidents. In three studies, children from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds answered questions about the absence of female, African-American and Hispanic presidents.
The researchers found most children are aware that women and minorities have been excluded from the U.S. presidency. Although most of the children believed people of all races and genders should be president, they offered surprising answers as to why only white males have held the nation's highest political office:
* One in four participants said it is illegal for women and minorities to hold the office of president;
* One in three children attributed the lack of female, African-American and Latino presidents to racial and gender bias on the part of voters; and
* While some children expressed the belief that prejudice shapes how adults vote, another third of the participants said members of the excluded groups lacked the skills to hold the position.
"The U.S. presidency is a high profile case of racial and gender exclusion," Bigler, director of the Gender and Racial Attitudes Lab at the university, said. "And because this topic is not typically explained to children, they appear to create their own explanations for the exclusion."
Children generally were optimistic about the possibility that they could become president, the researchers found. However, girls who attributed the lack of female presidents to discrimination were more likely to report they could not become president. In contrast, African-American children who identified discrimination as the reason for the lack of diversity showed an increased interest in becoming president.
"Perhaps the increased interest in becoming president is a result of the long and well-known history of African-Americans' struggle to achieve equality in the United States," said Bigler. "Young girls are not as aware of the women's rights movements and are less likely to be knowledgeable about women's struggles to achieve political power."
Bigler notes the 2008 presidential election has the potential to significantly alter children's view.
"If Obama loses his bid for the presidency, there may be little change in children's attitudes, but it could fuel their perception that American voters are racially prejudiced," Bigler said. "In contrast, if Obama wins children may believe that exclusionary laws and racial prejudice no longer shape the outcomes of the presidential elections."
To learn more about Bigler's research on children's perspectives on the presidency, please read the feature story, "Primary Education: From their views on the White House to the playground, children need mentors' help to reject stereotypes" at: http://www.utexas.edu/features/2008/stereotypes/ .