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Awards for undistinguished, farfetched work

Written by CSS Admin on Sunday 08 October 2006

And the winners are...

We warned you last week that the annual Ig Nobel Prizes were about to be awarded in Cambridge, Mass., honoring -- or dishonoring -- some of the most undistinguished and farfetched work in science and other research-oriented fields. As a public service, we now bring you the award-winners, from www.improbable.com:

Ornithology: Two professors in California were recognized for exploring and explaining why woodpeckers don't get headaches.

Nutrition: Researchers in Kuwait University shared the Ig Nobel for showing that dung beetles are finicky eaters.

Peace: Howard Stapleton of Wales received the award for inventing an electromechanical teenager repellant, "a device that makes annoying noise designed to be audible to teenagers but not to adults."

Acoustics: Three bona fide U.S. professors conducted experiments to examine why people dislike the sound of fingernails scraping on a blackboard.

Mathematics: Australian researchers calculated the number of group photographs that must be taken to ensure that one is obtained without anyone having eyes closed.

Literature: Daniel Oppenheimer of Princeton University was recognized for his report, "Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly."

Medicine: In separate work, physicians at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine and in Haifa, Israel determined that hiccups could be cured by using digital rectal massage.

Physics: Professors at the Universite Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris shared an award for their insights into why, when you bend dry spaghetti, it often breaks into more than two pieces.

Chemistry: Spanish researchers studied "Ultrasonic Velocity in Cheddar Cheese as Affected by Temperature."

Biology: Two university professors in different parts of Europe determined the female malaria mosquito Anopheles gambiae is equally attracted to the smell of limburger cheese and the odor of human feet.

Bang away, Woody

You'd think all that banging by woodpeckers would, in fact, give them quite a headache. They're hammering a hard surface up to 20 times a second at 1,200 times the force of gravity, noted Dr. Ivan Schwab of the University of California, Davis. And yet the woodpecker community's per capita consumption of Excedrin is stunningly low.

And just why don't these birds suffer up above neck level? We'll let Dr. Schwab explain (if that's what you would call it), from his article in the British Journal of Ophthalmology: "Woodpeckers enjoy a cushioned choroid with an as yet unknown mucopolysaccharide filling the interstices. The pecten probably also has a role in maintaining an effective cushion as the pecten can fill with blood to briefly elevate intraocular pressure thus maintaining firm pressure on the lens and retina to prevent damage."

If you say so, doc.

His Mosquito helps everyone

The Ig Nobel peace-prize winner, Mr. Stapleton designed his irritating noise device, The Mosquito, as protection for shopkeepers from swarms of loitering teenagers. To be fair, however, he's turned the tables to make it available as a cell phone ring tone for teenagers who don't want adults knowing when they're being contacted, such as during school. "I think it was the combination of uses that made the organizers of the [Ig Nobel] awards smile," he told The Independent of London.

The invention's success, according to its Web site, comes from age-related hearing loss called presbycusis, affecting the highest frequencies of 18 to 20 kHz after people turn 20 years old. It means high-frequency sounds can be emitted that are audible "only to teenagers."

I'm exponentially incredulous

Literature prize-winner Oppenheimer, a psychologist, told The Washington Post about people's inflated vocabularies. "It turns out that somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of people admit to replacing short words with longer words in their writing in an attempt to sound smarter," he said. "The problem is that this strategy backfires -- such writing is reliably judged to come from less intelligent authors."

More on annoying sounds

A co-winner of the acoustics prize, Randolph Blake of Vanderbilt and Northwestern universities, called the study of blackboard-scraping "the most gruesome experiment I've ever put together." It was all explained in a 1986 research paper, "Psychoacoustics of a Chilling Sound."

Cripes, not again

The Australians who won for their work on "blink-free photos" factored in the average person's 10 blinks per minute, with the average blink lasting about 250 milliseconds, and a camera shutter staying open about eight milliseconds in good indoor light, longer in bad light. Their conclusion for groups of less than 20 was to plan to take one-third the number of photos as there are people for a blink-free picture -- if the light is good -- and take half the number of photos as people if light is bad.

They said that "photographing 30 people in bad light would need about 30 shots. Once there's around 50 people, even in good light, you can kiss your hopes of an unspoilt photo goodbye."

Only as a last resort

Dr. Francis Fesmire, co-winner of the medicine Ig Nobel, had been uncertain about what to do about a patient who complained of three days of persistent hiccups. Various standard cures failed. Something prompted him to begin using digital rectal massage in a slow circumferential motion. The hiccups slowed, then stopped altogether in 30 seconds, he wrote in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 1987.

It was a classic Ig Nobel example, but when Dr. Fesmire learned last week of his award, he wasn't sure whether to feel honored or embarrassed. Now director of the emergency heart center at Erlanger Medical Center in Chattanooga, Tenn., he hopes someday to "be remembered for my cardiac research," as opposed to putting his finger in a man's bottom.

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