The 2004 Ig Nobel Prizes

In what has become an annual tradition, I’m pleased to bring you the results of this year’s Ig Nobel Prizes, awarded by the science humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research to those who have done something that “first makes people laugh, then makes them think.”

The awards were presented on September 30 at Harvard University by “genuine, genuinely bemused Nobel Laureates,” in a ceremony that also featured the world premiere of The Atkins Diet Opera.

This year three Canadians joined the ranks of Ig Nobel Laureates.

Ramesh Balasubramaniam of the University of Ottawa won the Ig Nobel Prize in Physics with his co-researcher Michael Turvey of the University of Connecticut and Haskins Laboratory for their paper “Coordinating Modes in the Multisegmental Dynamics of Hula Hooping.” They must be especially congratulated for avoiding the strong temptation of circular reasoning.

Two Canadians were also among the winners of the Ig Nobel Prize in Biology. Ben Wilson of the University of British Columbia, Lawrence Dill of Simon Fraser University, Robert Batty of the Scottish Association for Marine Science, Magnus Whalberg of the University of Aarhus in Denmark, and Hakan Westerberg of Sweden’s National Board of Fisheries, won the award for showing that herrings may communicate with each other by “bubble expulsion from the anal duct region,” producing what are called FRTs. (For Fast Repetitive Tick sounds, of course.) This apparently helps herring congregate for protection from predators, who, like anyone with any sense, think twice before plunging into a giant shoal of FRTing fish.

The prize in Medicine went to Steven Stack of Wayne State University in Detroit and James Gundlach of Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, for their important study on “The Effect of Country Music on Suicide.” (In brief: the greater the airtime devoted to country music, the greater the white suicide rate. I hasten to add that it’s the themes found in the music, not the music itself, the scientists blame.)

As the parent of a three-year-old, I was pleased to see that Jillian Clarke of the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, and then Howard University, won the Ig Nobel Prize for Public Health for investigating the scientific validity of the Five-Second Rule–the one that says if food touches the floor for five seconds or less, it’s still OK to eat it. Alas, her study invalidated the rule, showing that microbes can be transferred from floor to food within that time frame. (Her truly astonishing find, however, was that the floors of University of Illinois were, literally, clean enough to eat off of: even in high-traffic areas, they didn’t have a countable number of bacteria on them.)

The Ig Nobel in Chemistry went to the Coca-Cola Company of Great Britain for its no-longer-available-in-the-U.K. bottled water Dansani. The company’s path to the award goes like this: purify tap water using the same process inexpensive home purifiers use, add calcium chloride, containing bromide, to improve the taste, then pump ozone through the whole concoction, thereby oxidizing the innocuous bromide into the carcinogen bromate at twice the legal level.

Donald J. Smith and his father, the late Frank J. Smith, of Florida, USA, won the prize in Engineering for patenting “A method of styling hair to cover partial baldness using only the hair on a person’s head”–otherwise known as the comb-over.

The Ig Nobel in Literature went to The American Nudist Research Library of Kissimmee, Florida, for “preserving nudist history so that everyone can see it.” The Library, located at the Cypress Cove Nudist Resort, is a clothing-optional facility, but its Web site warns that, in order to preserve the collection, it is air-conditioned to a temperature in the lower 70s.

Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Christopher Chabris of Harvard University won the Psychology Ig Nobel “for demonstrating that when people pay close attention to something, it’s all too easy to overlook anything else–even a man in a gorilla suit”; their seminal paper is entitled “Gorillas in Our Midst.”

The Ig Nobel in Economics went to The Vatican, for outsourcing prayers to India (where priests are increasingly being asked to say special prayers at Mass on behalf of Catholics in other countries–including Canada–where clergy are in short supply).

And finally, the all-important Ig Nobel for Peace went to Daisuke Inoue of Hyogo, Japan, for inventing karaoke, “thereby providing an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other.”

All together now: “All we are saying…is give peace a chance…”

*Sniff.* Lovely.

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