Edward Willett

The 2006 Ig Nobel Prizes

Scientists have a pop-culture reputation as either a) boring or b) mad. That they are not necessarily the former (although, based on the evidence, the jury is still out on the latter) was proven once again last month with the annual awarding of the Ig Nobel Prizes “for research which first makes you laugh, then makes you think.”

The formal theme of the evening was “Inertia,” but I think a better theme might have been “Annoying Things.”

After all, the Ig Nobel Peace Prize went to Welshman Howard Stapleton for inventing something specifically designed to be annoying—to teenagers.

His “teenager repellant” emits an annoying high-pitched noise most people over 25 can’t hear. Younger people find it so annoying that after a few minutes they simply have to get away from it—and the convenience store that installed the device.

Stapleton is nothing if not fair-minded, however: he’s used the same technology to make telephone ringtones that are audible to teenagers but (probably) not to their teachers.

Some sounds annoy everyone, and topping the list is the sound of fingernails scraping on a blackboard. The Ig Nobel in Acoustics went to D. Lynn Halpern, Randolph Blake and James Hillenbrand (of assorted universities) for trying to find out why. (They didn’t, but they did find out that people hate the sound even if the high “screechy” wavelengths are removed.)

Headaches after banging one’s head against a wall are an annoyance, but not for woodpeckers, as Ornithology prize-winners Ivan R. Schwab and the late Philip R.A. May of California discovered. In brief: woodpeckers have thick, relatively spongy skulls and a clever arrangement of cartilage and muscles that cushions the blow.

Woodpeckers may love insects, but humans don’t. Nevertheless, scientists are interested in them. Witness the Ig Nobel Prize in Nutrition, which went to Wasmia Al-Houty and Faten Al-Mussalam of Kuwait for showing that dung beetles are finicky eaters. (If you really want to know—you probably don’t—dung beetles prefer the more fluid dung of horses to that of camels and sheep, sheep dung to that of a camel, and herbivore dung in general to that of dogs and foxes. The beetles consume the fluid components and bury whole dung as food for their larvae…I told you you didn’t want to know.)

Additional insect-related research rewarded this year was that of Bart Knols and Ruurd de Jong of the Netherlands, who won the Biology prize for showing that the female malaria mosquito is attracted equally to the smells of limburger cheese and human feet.

Hiccups are annoying, but the cure can be, too, as the Ig Nobel in Medicine proved: it went to Francis M. Fesmire of the University of Tennessee and three Israeli scientists for discovering a new way to terminate intractable hiccups: “digital rectal massage.” Dr. Fesmire accepted his award wearing a single latex glove.

Nothing annoys a photographer more than closed eyes in a group photo. Nic Svenson and Piers Barnes of Australia won the Mathematics prize for calculating the number of photographs you must take of a group to (almost) ensure no eyes are closed. Rule of thumb for groups less than 20: divide the number of people by three in good light and by two in bad light. Above that number, it gets harder. For 30 people, you need about 30 shots. For 50 or more, you might as well give up now.

The way dry spaghetti breaks into three or more pieces instead of just two when you bend it is certainly annoying. Parisians Basile Audoly and Sebastien Neukirch were honored with the Physics prize for their insights into that problem. (After the first break, the release of the curvature in the remaining pieces creates shock waves strong enough to cause additional breaks.)

What’s spaghetti without cheese? The Chemistry prize went to a quartet of Spanish researchers for their study into how temperature affects the ultrasonic velocity in cheddar cheese.

Finally, the Ig Nobel Prize in Literature went to Daniel M. Oppenheimer for his study, “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly,” which revealed that “a majority of undergraduates admit to deliberately increasing the complexity of their vocabulary so as to give the impression of intelligence.”

Such extraneous (and annoying) obfuscation of clarity via the grafting on of multisyllabic, semi-opaque verbal concoctions of breathtaking obscurity is, I assure you, an intellectual affectation up with which I, your humble scrivener of explanatory missives, will never put.

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