SCIENCE FOCUS

Learned science journals take an off-beat approach at Christmas

Learned journals take a decidedly offbeat look at life during Christmas, including examining the pros and cons of laughter

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 December, 2013, 3:44am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 December, 2013, 3:44am

In this season to be jolly, even normally serious scientists may loosen up a little, perhaps publishing frivolous research and looking on the brighter side of life.

Check the British Medical Journal at regular times of year, and you'll find sober topics like influenza A, stress and cancer and treatment of smokers. But the Christmas edition features "non-traditional" research. Last year, it included an investigation of why Rudolph's nose is red - which found that a reindeer nose has a 25 per cent higher density of blood vessels than a human nose, helping protect it from freezing during sleigh rides.

This year's issue features a review of information on the pros and cons of laughter, peppered with corny one-liners. To wit: as children undergoing minor surgery clearly did not benefit from hospital clowns, authors R.E. Ferner and J.K. Aronson suggested: "Perhaps surgical patients derive no advantage from being in stitches." (The duo should not give up their day jobs just yet.)

Benefits of laughing included lower risk of myocardial infarction (heart attacks) and higher energy expenditure, though it seems you would have to laugh long and hard to achieve significant weight loss. Laughing may even help make women conceive better, given the results of a clown entertaining would-be mothers after in-vitro fertilisation and embryo transfer.

And yet, laughter is not always the best medicine. Humour can weaken your resolve and promote brand preference, so doctors encountering those selling drugs are advised to respond: "Don't make me laugh". Some people laugh till they faint, and the report tells of a woman who died laughing, as well as noting cardiac rupture is possible - so there really are cases of laughing fit to burst. Less drastically, people have suffered sudden loss of muscle tone, though at least a woman who was only affected on the right side could presumably still laugh on the other side of her face.

A ground-breaking paper looks at that pressing medical mystery: how long do chocolates survive in hospital wards? Careful observations revealed that boxes of chocolates left in wards were opened within an average of 12 minutes and individual chocolates survived for an average of 51 minutes. Most were eaten by health care assistants and nurses, followed by doctors.

For a fact to titillate and amaze your friends during Christmas gatherings, Dutch researchers compared stem cells in a mouse and a humpback whale. Although the whale is around two million times as heavy as the mouse, they found the stem cells are similar in size.

Appropriately for Christmas, the medical journal has a survey finding that almost one in 200 US mothers are virgins. Or at least they claim to be, though given a fair proportion have signed chastity pledges or have parents saying they barely communicate about sex and birth control, it appears likeliest they are just plain wrong. Lead author Amy Herring, a professor of biostatics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said: "We actually found a few virgin fathers as well - which is a little harder to get your head around."

Also as Christmas was approaching, the British Dietetic Association released its list of the "Top 5 Worst Celebrity Diets to Avoid in 2014". Top of the list is a diet from a cult that Michelle Pfeiffer reportedly belonged to. Scientifically, there can be no doubt that it will lead to weight loss, for this is the Breatharian Diet, in which you supposedly derive sustenance from air and/or sunlight alone. As the association notes, weight loss will be accompanied by dehydration, malnutrition and risk of death.

Other diets to avoid include the fancy sounding Biotyping, quickly dismissed with a verdict of "Bio-nonsense!" A gluten-free diet for all and minimising calories during the week before binge-drinking at the weekend are also scientifically unsound, even dangerous.

Earlier in the year, real science with a quirky twist was celebrated in this year's Ignobel Awards: "For achievements that first make people LAUGH then make them THINK".

The grand prize for medicine went to … drum roll please … a team of Chinese and Japanese researchers "for assessing the effect of listening to opera, on heart transplant patients who are mice."

The physics prize didn't bother with brain boggling quantum particles or anything similar. Instead, it was awarded "for discovering that some people would be physically capable of running across the surface of a pond - if those people and that pond were on the moon."

Now, attempting to run across a pond seems like the kind of thing a very drunk person might attempt. And the prizes did include an alcohol related one, for research into the well-known "beer goggles" effect. Titled, "Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beer Holder: People Who Think They Are Drunk Also Think They Are Attractive," the study scooped the Ignobel in psychology.

One of the authors, Brad Bushman of Ohio State University, told the BBC that this was the first study to find that drinking makes people think they are more attractive themselves, adding, "It illustrates that in human memory, the link between alcohol and attractiveness is pretty strong."

And if this seemed obvious to you already, you might like to ponder on the probability prize, which was awarded to a five-person team for making two related discoveries: "First, that the longer a cow has been lying down, the more likely that cow will soon stand up; and second, that once a cow stands up, you cannot easily predict how soon that cow will lie down again."

Martin Williams is a Hong Kong-based writer specialising in conservation and the environment, with a PhD in physical chemistry from Cambridge University