Where weird and wacky science gets its due

Medicine & Science

October 04, 2004|By Roy Rivenburg | Roy Rivenburg,LOS ANGELES TIMES

If a herring asks you to pull his finger, be very afraid. That's one of the lessons derived from this year's Ig Nobel awards ceremony, an event that honors offbeat scientific achievements.

The winners were announced last week at a boisterous Harvard gala featuring Hula-Hoop demonstrations, opera performances and scientists belting out karaoke.

The honorees included:

A scientific investigation of the "Five-Second Rule," which claims it's safe to eat food that has been dropped on the floor if you pick it up within five seconds.

A patent for bald spot comb-overs.

A study that linked suicide with listening to country music.

Research that suggests herring communicate by "breaking wind."

This was the 14th year for the Ig Nobels, which should not be confused with the more distinguished Nobel Prizes, which were scheduled to be announced in Sweden, today. . Ig Nobels are bestowed for accomplishments that "first make people laugh, then make them think," says Marc Abrahams, the guiding light behind the awards.

In the past, winners haven't been sure whether to feel elated or insulted, but most this year were happy with their prizes, which Abrahams described as handcrafted trophies "always made of extremely cheap materials." This year's was a fake box of cereal called Ig Nobel-O's.

In the physics category, the prize went to Ramesh Balasubramaniam and Michael T. Turvey for a landmark study on "Coordination Modes in the Multisegmental Dynamics of Hula Hooping," a scholarly analysis of the body movements necessary to keep a Hula-Hoop in motion. "I don't think anyone had mapped the physics of the Hula-Hoop," says Balasubramaniam, a professor at the University of Ottawa.

Among the study's conclusions: Successful Hula-Hoopers use "vertical suspensory activity" and "spatiotemporal patterning" of the lower limbs to keep the hoop "in steady oscillation parallel with the ground plane." Balasubramaniam admits his research might sound goofy, but says studying how the brain orchestrates such a complex task can pave the way for advances in robotics and rehabilitation of stroke victims.

The youngest Ig Nobel winner, 17-year-old Jillian Clarke, took the public health prize for researching the so-called Five-Second Rule during an internship at the University of Illinois.

To find out whether it really is safe to eat food that is quickly rescued after falling to the ground, she first tested bacteria levels on various floors at the university. "We took swabs from every floor on campus," she says. "Cafeterias, elevators, bathrooms, dorms."

To her surprise, no bacteria were detected. Next, she deliberately contaminated a few tiles with E. coli, then placed Gummi Bears and cookies on the tiles for several seconds. Result: The bacteria jumped to the food.

To round out the study, Clarke conducted a survey that found women were more likely than men to eat food that had been retrieved from the floor.

Perhaps the weirdest entry was a study on flatulent fish. Ben Wilson, a marine biologist at the University of British Columbia, was toiling in his lab one evening when an unexpected noise emanated from the herring aquarium. "At first, I thought someone was hiding in the cupboard pulling a prank," he recalls.

But when he turned up the volume on a microphone in the tank, the "raspberry" sound continued, accompanied by tiny air bubbles from the herrings' rear ends.

Next came a scientific journal article, and the delicate task of figuring out how to describe the passing of gas "without sounding too silly." Wilson and his colleagues devised such synonyms as "burst pulse sounds," and "digestive system venting."

The most disputed Ig Nobel was the medicine prize, for a journal article titled "The Effect of Country Music on Suicide." The report discovered suicide rates were higher in cities with numerous country radio stations and suggested the downbeat themes in country lyrics pushed listeners over the edge.

However, the conclusions were widely denounced - by country musicians and by sociologists, who said the methodology was flawed.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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