Nobel Prize Winners Celebrate The Science Of Silliness
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IT IS a device with a variety of practical applications: an ingenious gadget that disperses gangs of loitering teenagers by emitting a piercing shriek only they can hear. Not the pinnacle of science, perhaps, but high enough to win the Welsh engineer who designed it an award from Harvard. Howard Stapleton has been awarded the 2006 Ig Nobel award for peace.

This year’s winners were honoured — or dishonoured — at a raucous ceremony yesterday at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre. They include a doctor who put his finger on a cure for hiccups; two men who think there is something to the adage that feet smell like cheese; and researchers who discovered that dung beetles won’t tuck in to just any old pile of … well, dung.

What started as a small event in 1991 to honour obscure and humorous scientific achievements has grown into an international happening, with some of this year’s winners travelling from Australia, Kuwait and France.

Australian duo Nic Svenson and Dr Piers Barnes from the CSIRO won the mathematics category for calculating the chances of a blink-free photo.

The pair travelled to Boston to receive their prize, described by the international science journal Nature as no cash, but much cachet.

They are pleased to report that to ensure a photo with no one blinking, budding photographers need to shoot to the following criteria:

For groups of fewer than 20, you divide the number of people by three when there is good light or a decent flash; divide by two if the light is bad. This will give you the number of photos needed to get a blink-free photo.

The Ig Nobels are given out by real Nobel laureates, including Harvard physics professor Roy Glauber, who stays behind afterwards to sweep up.

Mr Stapleton’s device, called the Mosquito, emits a high-frequency, siren-like noise that is painful to the ears of teens and those in their early 20s, but inaudible to older adults.

The invention grew out of his 15-year-old daughter’s trip to the local store last year to buy milk. She came back empty-handed, having been intimidated by a group of teenage boys loitering outside the store.

Mr Stapleton, who has sold and installed security systems for more than two decades, thought back to when he was 12 years old and he visited his father at work.

“I walked into this room with six people doing ultrasonic welding, and immediately ran right back out again, the noise was so painful,” Mr Stapleton said. “I asked an adult: ‘What’s that noise?’ And he said: ‘What noise?’ “

Mr Stapleton’s company, Mosquito Loitering Solutions of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, has sold hundreds of the units to retailers, local governments, police departments and home owners all over Britain.

Dr Francis Fesmire said he was not sure whether he was honoured or embarrassed when he learned he had won an Ig Nobel for his paper called — ahem — Termination of Intractable Hiccups with Digital Rectal Massage.

“I’m a serious guy, and something I wrote in 1987 is coming back to haunt me,” said Dr Fesmire, an emergency physician and director of the emergency heart centre at Erlanger Medical Centre in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Dr Fesmire, who stresses he is a real doctor who “some day wishes to be truly be remembered for my cardiac research”, tried the technique for the first and last time nearly 20 years ago. He knew that the technique could be used to slow a rapid heartbeat by stimulating the vagus nerve. The same nerve, when stimulated, can stop hiccups.

“I saw this patient who couldn’t stop his hiccups, I tried these other manoeuvres, and then I stuck my finger in his bottom,” Dr Fesmire said, emphasising that it was the treatment of last resort. “Will I ever do it again? No!”

Dr Ivan Schwab accepted his Ig Nobel for his work explaining why woodpeckers don’t get headaches. Dr Schwab, an opthamologist, said his writings were based on the research of deceased UCLA professor Phillip May, who received an Ig Nobel posthumously.

“I had heard about the Igs and this sounded like too much fun to pass up,” said Dr Schwab, who dressed as a woodpecker for the ceremony.

The sound of fingernails scratching on a blackboard led to award-winning research by Randolph Blake and two colleagues who analysed the sound’s frequency level. Their research earned an Ig Nobel from Annals of Improbable Research magazine. AP, GUARDIAN 

The 2006 Ig Nobel winners, awarded by Annals of Improbable Research magazine, Harvard University.

  • ORNITHOLOGY The late Philip May and Ivan Schwab for exploring and explaining why woodpeckers do not get headaches.SOURCE: AP
  • NUTRITION Wasmia al-Houty and Faten al-Mussalam, for showing that dung beetles are finicky about the dung.
  • PEACE Howard Stapleton, for inventing a teenager repellent, an electronic device that makes annoying noise designed to be audible to teenagers but not adults. The same technology is used to make ringtones audible to teens, but not teachers.
  • ACOUSTICS Lynn Halpern, Randolph Blake and James Hillenbrand for experiments to learn why people dislike the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard.
  • MATHEMATICS Nic Svenson and Piers Barnes, for calculating the number of photographs you must take to ensure that nobody in a group photo will have their eyes closed.
  • LITERATURE Daniel Oppenheimer, for his report “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilised Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly”.
  • MEDICINE Joint winners: Francis Fesmire, for his medical case report, “Termination of Intractable Hiccups with Digital Rectal Massage”; and Majed Odeh, Harry Bassan, and Arie Oliven for their subsequent medical case report.
  • PHYSICS Basile Audoly and Sebastien Neukirch, for their insights into why dry spaghetti often breaks into more than two pieces when bent.
  • CHEMISTRY Antonio Mulet, Jose Javier Benedito, Jose Bon and Carmen Rossello, for their study “Ultrasonic Velocity in Cheddar Cheese as Affected by Temperature”.
  • BIOLOGY Bart Knols and Ruurd de Jong, for showing that female malaria mosquitoes are attracted equally to the smell of Limburger cheese and to the smell of human feet.

Author Mark Pratt

Publication The Age
Date 07 October 2006

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