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Dan Meyer of Hartselle swallows a sword at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony at Harvard's Sanders Theater on Thursday. Meyer earned an Ig Nobel Prize for a study he conducted with Dr. Brian Witcombe on the medical side effects of sword swallowing.
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Dan Meyer of Hartselle swallows a sword at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony at Harvard's Sanders Theater on Thursday. Meyer earned an Ig Nobel Prize for a study he conducted with Dr. Brian Witcombe on the medical side effects of sword swallowing.

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Sword swallower from area earns national award

By Paul Huggins 340-2395

Dan Meyer never imagined his sword-swallowing act would bring him before the world's greatest scholars.

But there he was Thursday in front of five Nobel Prize winners and hundreds of other professors, doctors and scientists at Harvard's famed Sanders Theater sliding a shiny blade down his gullet.

"Everybody had their hands over their open mouths. They were in total shock," the Hartselle resident said.

Meyer was there to say thanks, which he still managed with sword inserted, for the Ig Nobel Prize for Medicine, a parody of the actual Nobel prizes being given this week.

Given since 1991, the Ig Nobel Prizes are co-sponsored by three Harvard student groups, including the Annals of Improbable Research magazine. The criteria: First make you laugh, then make you think.

Meyer, along with Dr. Brian Witcombe, received honors for a study they conducted on the medical side of effects of sword swallowing. The British Medical Journal published it in December.

Marc Abrahams, Improbable Research editor and Ig Nobel founder, said once he heard of Meyer's and Witcombe's study, it was as hard to ignore as an actual sword lodged in his head.

"You have to tug at it for the next week or two and tell your friends ... you want to learn more about it," he said.

Meyer and Witcombe, a London radiologist, spent a year on their study, which included details from 48 current or former sword swallowers.

Among their findings: injuries occur more often when swallowing multiple or oddly shaped swords; and occasionally, a sword is difficult to extract, presumably due to spasm or dryness related to nervousness or soreness.

Their research also showed that sword swallowers have helped the medical community. In 1868, for example, a swallower helped a doctor develop an endoscope by using a straight tube, mirrors and gasoline lamp.

"Even though it does sound a little quirky and makes people smile the first time they hear about it, for sword swallowers, it's extremely important, Meyer said.

The Ig Nobel awards recognize 10 studies each year.

Past awards have gone to researchers who monitored brain activity in a locust forced to watch the movie "Star Wars," as well as a study of the "five-second rule;" the theory that food dropped on the floor won't be contaminated if picked up within five seconds.

In bodily contrast to Meyer's sword swallowing research, last year's Ig Nobel in medicine went to a researcher at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine, for his medical case report, "Termination of Intractable Hiccups with Digital Rectal Massage."

Abrahams said he and about 100 judges, including former Nobel winners, spend a year reviewing more than 6,000 new studies. They also reconsider nominations from previous years.

Though judges find humor in the studies, Abrahams said most of the recipients pay their way to accept their award. Seven of 10 came this year from as far as Japan and Australia.

For many recipients, it's the first time anyone has ever noticed their work, and they are thankful for that, Abrahams said.

Meyer said it was a thrill to rub elbows with some of the world's greatest minds, and he now shares e-mails with Nobel laureates. The BBC, USA Today, The Associated Press, National Public Radio and Canadian Broadcasting have also interviewed him this week.

"It's ironic that I never really cared much for science in school," he said. "But now, as a sword swallower, I swallow iron and use scientific principles such as physiology and an understanding of the human body on a day to day basis in my work."

Meyer, 50, has been swallowing swords for 20 years. The Daily featured him in January when he performed for Honda of Decatur customers. He has since dropped the car sales job and focuses solely on his sword act.

Honoring the odd

The 2007 Ig Nobel Awards recognized 10 research efforts that make people laugh and think.

  • Aviation: Patricia V. Agostino, Santiago A. Plano and Diego A. Golombek, for discovering that hamsters recover from jet lag more quickly when given Viagra.

  • Biology: Johanna E.M.H. van Bronswijk, for taking a census of all the mites and other life forms that live in people's beds.

  • Chemistry: Mayu Yamamoto, for extracting vanilla flavor from cow dung.

  • Economics: Kuo Cheng Hsieh, for patenting a device to catch bank robbers by ensnaring them in a net.

  • Linguistics: Juan Manuel Toro, Josep B. Trobalon and Nuria Sebastian-Galles, for determining that rats sometimes can't distinguish between Japanese, played backward, and Dutch, played backward.

  • Literature: Glenda Browne, for her study of the word "the."

  • Medicine: Dan Meyer and Brian Witcombe, for investigating the side-effects of swallowing swords.

  • Nutrition: Brian Wansink, for investigating people's appetite for mindless eating by secretly feeding them a self-refilling bowl of soup.

  • Peace: The Air Force Wright Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio, for suggesting the research and development of a "gay bomb," which would cause enemy troops to become sexually attracted to each other.

  • Physics: L. Mahadevan and Enrique Cerda Villablanca for their theoretical study of how sheets become wrinkled.

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