The Ig Nobel Prizes of 2002

It’s time again to announce the winners of some of the most prestigious prizes in science.

No, not THOSE. I’m not talking about the IgNobel Prizes, awarded annually by the science humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research to those who have done something that first makes people laugh, then makes them think; or, to put it another way, those whose achievements “cannot or should not be reproduced.”

The 2002 awards were presented last Thursday in Harvard University’s Sanders Theater, before a standing room-only audience of 1200, with genuine Nobel Laureates serving as presenters.

My favorite award this year, I think, has to be the IgNobel Prize for Interdisciplinary Research, which went to Karl Kruszelnicki of the University of Sydney, for his comprehensive survey of human belly button lint–who gets it, when, what color, and how much. Briefly, you’re more likely to have belly button lint if you’re male, older, hairy and have an innie.

The fact hairier people have more (BBL) lends support to the Dr. Kruszelnicki’s hypothesis that belly hair acts like a one-way ratchet mechanism, advancing loosened clothing fibres toward the belly button. Oddly, although microscopic analysis shows BBL is primarily made up of clothing fibers, with some skin cells and hair mixed in, some people consistently report BBL in a different color from the clothing they wear. Clearly more research is needed.

Another favorite of mine this year is the IgNobel Prize for Peace, which went to Keita Sato, President of Takara Co., Dr. Matsumi Suzuki, President of Japan Acoustic Lab, and Dr. Norio Kogure, Executive Director, Kogure Veterinary Hospital, for promoting peace and harmony between the species by inventing Bow-Lingual, a computer-based automatic dog-to-human language translation device. This $180 device consists of an eight-centimetre microphone for the dog’s collar and a small console containing a translation computer. The manufacturers claim it can interpret six different emotional categories: fun, frustration, menace, sorrow, demand and self-expression. The device randomly selects one of about 200 human phrases or words to go along with the identified emotion.Sales in Japan are booming: Takara, a toy company, expects to sell 300,000 by the end of this year.

In a similar vein, the IgNobel for Hygiene went to Eduardo Segura, of Lavakan de Aste, in Tarragona, Spain, for inventing a washing machine for cats and dogs: you put the animal in a box, press a button, and the pet is gently washed and dried. (Don’t worry, it doesn’t have a spin cycle.)

The IgNobel Prize for Chemistry went to Theo Gray of Wolfram Research, in Champaign, Illinois, for building a periodic table table: an actual, four-legged, wooden table in the shape of the periodic table, with each element represented by a moveable wooden tile, and a box beneath the tile containing a sample of the element or some object that contains it.

The IgNobel Prize in Biology went to Norma E. Bubier, Charles G.M. Paxton, Phil Bowers, and D. Charles Deeming of the United Kingdom, for their report “Courtship Behaviour of Ostriches Towards Humans Under Farming Conditions in Britain.” At least amorous ostriches are one problem Saskatchewan’s troubled wheat farmers don’t have to contend with.

The IgNobel Prize in physics went to Arnd Leike of the University of Munich, for demonstrating that beer froth obeys the mathematical Law of Exponential Decay. Vital research, if it someday leads to longer-lasting head.

The IgNobel Prize in mathematics went to K.P. Sreekumar and the late G. Nirmalan of Kerala Agricultural University, India, for their analytical report “Estimation of the Total Surface Area in Indian Elephants.” Presumably, it’s quite large.

The IgNobel Prize in Literature was given to Vicki L. Silvers of the University of Nevada-Reno and David S. Kreiner of Central Missouri State University, for their report “The Effects of Pre-Existing Inappropriate Highlighting on Reading Comprehension.” If I ever get hold of a printed copy of their report, I intend to mark the important points in blue, green and purple, and leave it the library for all those inappropriate highlighters to read.

The IgNobel Prize in Medicine went to Chris McManus of University College London, for his report, “Scrotal Asymmetry in Man and in Ancient Sculpture” (about which I do not care to elaborate, thank you), and finally, the IgNobel Prize in Economics went to the executives, corporate directors, and auditors of Enron,WorldCom, Xerox and a long list of other U.S.-based companies, “for adapting the mathematical concept of imaginary numbers for use in the business world.”

You don’t have to be a scientist, it seems, to carry out IgNobel-worthy work.

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