The tradition began in , originally as a one-off attempt to bring a bit of levity to the journal for the holidays. While the papers selected for inclusion evinced a quirky sense of humor, they were also peer-reviewed and scientifically rigorous. Some of the more notable offerings over the last 37 years included the side effects of sword-swallowing; a thermal imaging study on reindeer offering a possible explanation for why Rudolph's nose was so red; and an analysis of the superior antioxidant properties of martinis that are shaken, not stirred.
Conclusion: "'s profound state of health may be due, at least in part, to compliant bartenders. But by far the most widely read Christmas issue paper was a study that produced the very first MRI images of a human couple having sex. In so doing, the researchers busted a couple of long-standing myths about the anatomical peculiarities of the male and female sexual organs during sex.
Naturally, the study was a shoo-in for the Ig Nobel Prize for Medicine. Leonardo da Vinci famously studied cadavers to learn about human anatomy. He even drew an anatomical image of a man and woman in flagrante delict o, noting "I expose to men the origin of their first, and perhaps second, reason for existing. Most notably, Leonardo depicted a ramrod straight penis within the vagina. The modern era of the science of sex arguably began in the s with gynecologist Robert Dickinson , who sought to dispel the absurd notion of "coital interlocking," whereby the penis penetrates the cervix like a key fitting into a lock.
Dickinson's experiments involved inserting a penis-sized glass tube into the vaginas of female subjects aroused via clitoral stimulation, as well as making plaster casts of women's vulvas and vaginas. His work influenced Alfred Kinsey , whose own research produced the famous Kinsey scale to describe sexual orientation.
Masters and Johnson revolutionized the field in the s with their own provocative series of experiments on sexual response. Volunteers would have sex while hooked up to instruments in the lab. Masters and Johnson famously participated personally in their experiments, becoming lovers—a development that inspired the Showtime series Masters of Sex.
They identified four stages of the Human Sexual Response Cycle: excitement, plateau, orgasmic, and resolution. Most relevant for the current discussion: they used an artificial penis for some experiments, noting among their findings that the volume of a woman's uterus increased by as much as percent during orgasm.
However, they acknowledged this might not be accurate due to the artificial nature of their experiments. The study was the brainchild of Dutch physiologist Pek van Andel, who co-invented the artificial cornea and hence had a solid academic reputation that enabled him to persuade a hospital in Groningen, the Netherlands, to let him use an MRI machine after hours. But his original intention was to produce a piece of "body art. Sabelis was an actual participant in the first experiment, conducted with her then-boyfriend, identified only as "Jupp.
The first experiment, with Sabelis and Jupp, took place in While the latter had some concerns about whether he'd be able to adequately perform while being packed into a noisy metal tube with his partner, he managed to rise to the occasion. The experiment lasted 45 minutes, and the incredible detail of the resulting images rendered Sabelis momentarily speechless.
Van Andel was delighted to note that the penis took on a boomerang shape during sex—disproving what Leonardo had depicted in his sketch centuries before. The images also disproved Masters and Johnson's finding that female sexual arousal increases the size of the uterus. Convinced the images were scientifically relevant, van Andel submitted their findings to Nature.
The journal rejected the paper outright. Controversy erupted when the Dutch tabloids got wind of the experiment, and the hospital balked at letting him use the MRI for additional experiments, although van Andel persuaded them to let him continue in the end. Between then and , eight couples and three single women participated in 13 experiments. Sabelis recently boasted to Vice that she and Jupp were the only couple who'd managed the feat without the aid of Viagra.
The paper finally found a publisher in the British Medical Journal, whose editors thought the study made a fine addition to their annual Christmas issue.
Twenty years on, any paperwork relating to the decision to publish is gone, and the memories of editorial staff are hazy one remembered discussion about how thin the participants must have been to manage intercourse in a 50cm diameter tube. It was possibly the close fit with the da Vinci drawing that swung the decision.
I think the Christmas issue was the only place it would properly have fitted. Delamothe puzzles over the enduring appeal of the paper, and he seems to conclude that it's mostly due to the public's prurient interest at "seeing coitus on screen for free.
Van Andel created a timeless piece of "body art" after all. The sexual act is, as Leonardo observed, "the origin of [our] first, and perhaps second, reason for existing"—and hence a thing of beauty. You must login or create an account to comment. Skip to main content. There's rarely time to write about every cool science-y story that comes our way. So this year, we're once again running a special Twelve Days of Christmas series of posts, highlighting one science story that fell through the cracks each day, from December 25 through January 5.
Today: celebrating the year anniversary of the most viewed article and accompanying video in the history of the British Medical Journal. Schultz et al. Left: Midsagittal image of the anatomy of sexual intercourse labelled. Right: Midsagittal image of the anatomy of sexual intercourse. Jennifer Ouellette Jennifer Ouellette is a senior writer at Ars Technica with a particular focus on where science meets culture, covering everything from physics and related interdisciplinary topics to her favorite films and TV series.
Jennifer lives in Los Angeles. Email jennifer. Channel Ars Technica.