Volume 84 Issue 41 | p. 56 | Newscripts
Issue Date: October 9, 2006

2006 Ig Nobel Prizes

Department: Newscripts

2006 Ig Nobel Prizes


If April brings showers and May brings flowers, then October must bring treats. Children get jack o' lanterns full of Halloween candy. Baseball fans get the World Series. A few fortunate scientists get Nobel Prizes. And the rest of us get the Ig Nobel Prizes—awards "honoring achievements that first make people LAUGH, and then make them THINK," produced by the Annals of Improbable Research.

Whether or not winning an Ig Nobel actually counts as a treat is debatable. But nine of 2006's 10 Ig Nobelists felt proud enough of their achievement to travel, at their own expense, from as far away as Australia and the Middle East to Harvard University's Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., for the 16th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony on Oct. 5.

This year's Chemistry Prize went to a team of Spanish food scientists for their report, "Ultrasonic Velocity in Cheddar Cheese as Affected by Temperature" (J. Food Sci. 1999, 64, 1038). Antonio Mulet, a food scientist at the University of Valencia, and colleagues think an ultrasonic device could be used to nondestructively monitor blocks of cheese as they mature. "The most reliable temperature interval to carry out ultrasonic measurements in cheddar cheese is identified as 0 oC to 17 oC," they report.

Cheese figured prominently in the Biology Prize as well. Bart Knols and Ruurd de Jong of Wageningen Agricultural University, in the Netherlands say that limburger lovers traveling to regions where malaria is endemic would be wise to leave their prize curds at home and pack foot powder instead. Knols and de Jong found that the female malaria mosquito Anopheles gambiae is attracted equally to the smell of limburger cheese and to the smell of human feet (Lancet 1996, 348, 1322).

Food was also fodder for this year's Physics Prize, won by Basile Audoly and Sebastien Neukirch of Paris' Pierre & Marie Curie University "for their insights into why, when you bend dry spaghetti, it often breaks into more than two pieces" (Phys. Rev. Lett. 2005, 95, 95505-1). The same problem apparently eluded 1965 Physics Nobel Laureate Richard P. Feynman. In the book "No Ordinary Genius," the inventor W. Daniel Hillis describes his and Feynman's dried pasta experiments: "We ended up at the end of a couple of hours with broken spaghetti all over the kitchen and no real good theory about why spaghetti breaks in three."

In far less appetizing work, Wasmia Al-Houty of Kuwait University and Faten Al-Mussalam of the Kuwait Environment Public Authority snagged the Nutrition Prize "for showing that dung beetles are finicky eaters" (J. Arid Environ. 1997, 35, 511). "When dung from three herbivorous animals, horse, camel, and sheep, was offered, the beetles (Scarabaeus cristatus) preferred the more fluid horse dung to the others," write Al-Houty and Al-Mussalam.

Princeton University's Daniel M. Oppenheimer garnered the Literature Prize for his report, "Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly" (Appl. Cog. Psych. 2006, 20, 139).

Finally, the Newscripts gang would be remiss if we didn't acknowledge the winner of the 2006 Ig Nobel Peace Prize. Howard Stapleton of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, received that honor "for inventing an electromechanical teenager repellant???a device that makes annoying noise designed to be audible to teenagers but not adults." Stapelton has decided to hedge his bets by also using the same technology "to sell telephone ringtones that are audible to teenagers but not to their teachers."

As always, the awards were handed out by genuine Nobel Laureates, including for the first time 2005 Physics Laureate Roy Glauber, who for the past 10 years has swept up the hundreds of paper airplanes lobbed at the Ig Nobel stage. In addition to handing out prizes, "Glauber insisted on retaining his airplane-sweeping duties," notes Marc Abrahams, the Ig Nobel's master of ceremonies. As the rookie Laureate, Glauber also was the highly coveted prize in the annual Win-a-Date-with-a-Nobel-Laureate Contest.

A recording of the ceremony can be viewed at www.improbable.com, and an edited version of the event will be broadcast on Friday, Nov. 24, as part of National Public Radio's "Science Friday."

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