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An Ig Nobel Effort

by Bethany Halford
October 11, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 41

Credit: Eric Workman
Credit: Eric Workman

Produced by the Annals of Improbable Research and masterminded by AIR's editor, Marc Abrahams, the Igs h onor achievements "that first make people LAUGH and then make them THINK." The 2004 award winners traveled to Harvard at their own expense from Japan, Sweden, Denmark, Canada, and various parts of the U.S. to receive their Ig Nobel prizes (shown).

Although they "could not or would not" attend the ceremony, the Coca-Cola Co. of Great Britain won this year's Chemistry Prize "for using advanced technology to convert liquid from the River Thames into Dasani, a transparent form of water, which for precautionary reasons has been made unavailable to customers."

In March, the company pulled Dasani from U.K. shelves after discovering that the bottled water contained as much as twice the legal limit of bromate. Apparently, the makers of Dasani in the U.K. added calcium chloride that contained bromide to improve the taste profile of the water--tap water from the Thames that had been filtered using reverse osmosis. They then pumped ozone through the water, oxidizing benign bromide to carcinogenic bromate, and charged $1.70 for half a liter of the "purified" water, compared to the fraction of a penny it costs for the same water from the tap.

The Physics Prize went to Ramesh Balasubramanian of the University of Ottowa and Michael Turvey of the University of Connecticut and Yale University "for exploring and explaining the dynamics of hula-hooping" [Biological Cybernetics, 90, 176 (2004)]. An attempt to demonstrate the phenomenon was made by 1986 Chemistry Nobel Laureate Dudley Herschbach, 1976 Chemistry Nobel Laureate William Lipscomb, and 1993 Physiology or Medicine Nobel Laureate Richard Roberts, who were also responsible for handing out the prizes.

There was no demonstration for the Public Health Prize, which went to Howard University student Jillian Clarke, who did her award-winning research when she was at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. Clarke, the youngest Ig Nobelist to date, was recognized "for investigating the scientific validity of the Five-Second Rule"--the rule that governs whether or not it is safe to eat food that's been dropped on the floor.

Frank J. Smith of Orlando, Fla., posthumously received the Ig in engineering along with his son Donald J. Smith "for patenting the comb-over" [U.S. Patent No. 4,022,227]. Upon his acceptance of the award, Smith noted that he and his father did not invent the feat of coiffure construction, but rather, patented it "to record and document the comb-over for history." Smith added, "The comb-over is not about hair. It's about heritage."

Daisuke Inoue of Hyogo, Japan, received the loudest and longest ovation and was serenaded with "I Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" when he claimed the Peace Prize "for inventing karaoke, thereby providing an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other."

Prizes were also awarded in medicine, to a group that reported on "The Effect of Country Music on Suicide" [Social Forces, 71, 211 (1992)]; in literature, to the American Nudist Research Library "for preserving nudist history so that everyone can see it"; in psychology, to a research team that demonstrated "that when people pay close attention to something, it's all too easy to overlook anything else--even a man in a gorilla suit" [Perception, 28, 1059 (1999)]; in economics, to the Vatican "for outsourcing prayers to India"; and in biology, to two international research groups "for showing that herrings apparently communicate by farting" [Aquatic Living Resources, 16, 271 (2003), and Biology Letters, 271, S95 (2003)].

The event also featured Herschbach as the prize in the Win-a-Date-with-a-Nobel-Laureate Contest and the premiere of "The Atkins Diet Opera." For anyone who missed the ceremony or the simultaneous live webcast, an edited recording of the proceedings will be broadcast on National Public Radio's "Science Friday" on Nov. 26--the day after Thanksgiving.

This week's column was written by Bethany Halford. Please send comments and suggestions to


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