Ig Nobel laureate’s research on cure for kidney stones started as a bar bet

Winning research that “makes people laugh, and then think” also includes studies on self-colonoscopy and the nutritional benefits of cannibalism

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David Wartinger is awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in medicine for discovering that certain roller coasters can help hasten the passage of kidney stones Sept. 13 at Harvard's Sanders Theatre.
Kevin Ly

The 28th annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, a parody of the better-known Nobel Prize ceremony, took place at Sanders Theatre at Harvard Sept. 13. Ten Ig Nobel prizes were awarded in fields ranging from Literature to Medicine, to scientists who conducted improbable research that “makes people laugh, and then think,” according to its website.

Winning topics included studies on self-colonoscopy in the sitting position, the nutritional benefits of human cannibalism, and the use of roller coaster rides to aid in the passage of kidney stones. These projects were explained in more detail at the Ig Informal Lectures held at MIT Sept. 15.

True to form, the award ceremony began with a paper airplane deluge, in which the audience threw their planes onto the stage “in the interests of safety and recycling,” according to the distributed program.

Outside in the foyer, under the glare of “human spotlights,” or torch holders covered in silver body paint, the lab coat-clad Boston Squeezebox Ensemble regaled attendees on their accordions with musical themes from “The Broken Heart Opera,” written by founder Marc Abrahams in accordance with this year's theme, “The Heart.” Acts from this comic opera, sung and performed by cardiologists (and a few Nobel Laureates), were interspersed throughout the rest of the ceremony.

The prize ceremony itself featured plenty of humorous moments, too, such as when Medical Education laureate Dr. Akira Horiuchi's attempt to demonstrate his award-winning colonoscopy technique was abruptly called off by flag-waving attorney William J. Maloney, designated as the evening’s “Not Safe For Work” indicator.

The Reproductive Medicine awardees, Drs. John Barry, Bruce Blank, and Michel Boileau, also kept the audience in stitches as they presented their paper, “Nocturnal Penile Tumescence Monitoring With Stamps,” with a slideshow featuring increasingly suggestive stamps of horned mammals, volcanoes, and rockets, to name a few. Abrahams concluded his speech by warning the audience that “philately is not permitted in Sanders Theatre.”

Literature laureate Dr. Alethea Blackler, who had demonstrated that product users seldom read instruction manuals, received her award in a dress printed with remote control buttons and emblazoned with the letters ‘RTFM’ in red. When we asked about the significance of her dress, Blackler (who admitted to not reading instruction manuals herself) said they stood for “Read The Field Manual,” and remarked that “sometimes, the F is replaced by another word.”

Jokes aside, there was also reason, logic, and scientific merit to be found in the research. Nutrition laureate Dr. James Cole, who calculated the energy efficiency of a human-cannibalism diet, said in an interview with The Tech that the Ig Nobels “frame the eye-catching, interesting part [of my work], which is what makes people gasp in horror or maybe in laughter. But behind a lot of the science, we’re trying to tackle a bigger question.” For Cole, the bigger question that motivated his research was his desire to understand why human ancestors persistently engaged in cannibalism throughout their evolutionary history.

Meanwhile, Professor David Wartinger's Medicine Prize-winning research “basically started as a bar bet,” he said in an interview with The Tech. “We did this because we were curious. We had no research grants, we paid for it ourselves.”

It all began when a patient at his urology clinic reported passing out kidney stones after riding on the Big Thunder Mountain roller coaster at Disney World. Wartinger then built a silicone model of the patient's kidney, loaded it with his own urine and the patient’s kidney stones, and rode the roller coaster over 360 times. “We found out that at least for this particular patient, with this particular kidney design, it really did dislodge stones.”

Wartinger believes his research is especially applicable towards young women intending to conceive, since passing kidney stones during pregnancy can trigger premature labour and miscarriages. Astronauts are also likely to benefit, as bone demineralization during long duration space travel often results in stone formation. Wartinger has approached NASA with hopes of continuing his study.

“So the idea is: get rid of the stones when they’re little. You don’t need an operation, or a trip to the emergency room. I just hope people can put it to use,” he concluded.

And indeed, they have. Following the Ig Informal Lectures, Chi-Han Chang, a graduate student from Harvard, approached Wartinger to thank him. He told The Tech about how a cousin afflicted with kidney stones had benefited from the research. “She went to an amusement park in Taiwan and there was a free-fall roller coaster,” Chang said. “She rode it and after that, she went back to the hospital and the kidney stone was gone. So it actually worked.”

Webcasts of both Thursday’s Ig Nobel Prize ceremony and Saturday’s Ig Informal Lectures are available on the Improbable Research YouTube channel.

Kevin Ly contributed reporting.