The 2007 IgNobel Awards


(This 867th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on November 5, 2007.)


Dan Meyer demonstrates sword swallowing as Brian Whitcomb looks on.

AP Photo


You do have to have a sense of humor to put up with local elections where we must too often choose the lesser of evils, so I offer a bit of relief from the last minute haranguing and personal attacks: this year's winners of the 2007 IgNobel Awards.


The IgNobel Prizes are given each year at a Harvard University ceremony by the science humor magazine, "Annals of Improbable Research", to those who have done something "that first makes people laugh, then makes people think."


In my favorite of science proposals like those of the "Annals" journal a "researcher" urged readers to travel great distances from their home to obtain their driving licenses. His reasoning: data shows clearly that accidents occur most frequently near where licenses are issued. With a license obtained elsewhere, statistics would be on the drivers' side instead of against them. He suggested opening a license bureau in Antarctica.


Although IgNobel awards are given for research that "cannot or should not be reproduced," they do not have the negative connotation of former Senator William Proxmire's Golden Fleece awards and rarely are they grant supported. Instead, as the organizers claim, they "celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative -- and spur people's interest in science, medicine and technology." Also the research usually represents minor activity in otherwise distinguished careers.


To underscore this, the awards are presented by real Nobel Prize winners and many of those being kidded travel long distances to accept.


Here then are the 2007 awards:


The award that gained all the headlines was the IgNobel Peace Prize that went to the U.S. Air Force's Wright Laboratory for its proposal to develop a so-called "gay bomb", a chemical weapon designed to make enemy soldiers sexually attracted to each other.


The award in medicine was given to Dr. Brian Witcombe and Dan Meyer for their report "Sword Swallowing and its Side Effects." Professor Meyer demonstrated his research before his amazed audience. Anyone who, like me, has had one of those devices that look like fly fishing poles pushed down their throat must have cringed at that episode.


But perhaps the most discomfiting award was the one in biology given to Dr. Johanna von Bronswijk for her census of all the mites, insects, spiders, pseudoscorpions, bacteria, algae and ferns found in our beds. Just seeing the list of all those itchy beasts and botany is enough to make tonight's sleep a little less sound.


And speaking of beds, the physics award went to L. Mahadevan and Enrique Cerda Villablanca for studying wrinkle patterns in sheets.


The chemistry prize went to Mayi Yamamoto for developing a way to extract vanillin -- vanilla fragrance and flavoring -- from cow dung. In his honor a Cambridge ice cream shop provided a special flavored cone to all those attending the award ceremony. It was named Yamamoto vanilla. 


Juan Manuel Toro, Josep Trobalon and Nuria Sebastian-Galles won the linguistics prize for demonstrating that rats can't tell the difference between a person speaking Japanese backward and a person speaking Dutch backward. How foolish of those rats.


The award in literature went to researcher Glenda Browne for her study of the definite article "the" and the ways it causes problems when alphabetizing.


With obesity a serious problem already, a study in the "just what we don't need" category received the nutrition award. It was Brian Wansink's experiment with a bottomless bowl of soup, which showed that humans eat more when presented with more food.


Kuo Cheng Hsieh's patent for a device that drops a net over bank robbers won the economics award. You have to wonder if it would disarm them as well?


For finding a new use for a widely overadvertised drug, Patricia Agostino, Santiago Plano and Diego Golombek earned the aviation prize. They discovered that hamsters recover from jet lag faster when given Viagra.


You can tune in on November 23, the day after Thanksgiving, to hear a recording of the IgNobel ceremony on Ira Flatow's NPR program, "Talk of the Nation: Science Friday." That uniformly excellent program is broadcast on WBFO at FM 88.7 each Friday from 2-4 p.m. Included in that post-Thanksgiving show is real chemistry Nobel Laureate Dudley Hershbach's nano-lecture.-- Gerry Rising