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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
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Thursday, October 4, 2007

Ig Nobels pop tonight

By Elizabeth Cooney, Globe Correspondent

Bottomless soup bowls, vanilla made from cow dung, a net that drops on bank robbers and "gay bombs." And don't forget discriminating rats listening to Japanese and Dutch. Backwards.

Must be time for the Ig Nobel Prizes again, when the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research recognizes scientists with a sense of humor from around the world for achievements that made the judges laugh and think.

Harvard's Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan is the only local laureate this year. He took the prize in physics for studying how sheets become wrinkled. Seems a little mild, next to the soup bowl that refilled itself in an experiment measuring people's appetites. But that sounds more appetizing than the vanillin, which really did come from livestock excrement.

The robber-nabbing net? Its Taiwanese inventor seems to have vanished, the Ig Nobel organizers report.

Gay bombs, however, were found at an Air Force research lab in Ohio that developed a chemical weapon to make enemy soldiers sexually irresistible to each other. The technical term is "Harassing, Annoying and 'Bad Guy' Identifying Chemicals."

And those rats? Turns out, sometimes they can't tell the difference between Japanese and Dutch spoken backwards. Huh.

This year's ceremony, at which real live Nobel laureates give out prizes to the winners -- 7 of the 10 were expected to show up at their own expense -- was webcast tonight from Harvard's Sanders Theatre.

Here's the list of winners:

MEDICINE PRIZE
Brian Witcombe of Gloucester, UK, and Dan Meyer of Antioch, Tenn., for their penetrating medical report "Sword Swallowing and Its Side Effects."
REFERENCE: "Sword Swallowing and Its Side Effects," Brian Witcombe and Dan Meyer, British Medical Journal, December 23, 2006, vol. 333, pp. 1285-7.

PHYSICS PRIZE
L. Mahadevan of Harvard University, and Enrique Cerda Villablanca of Universidad de Santiago de Chile, for studying how sheets become wrinkled.
REFERENCES:
"Wrinkling of an Elastic Sheet Under Tension," E. Cerda, K. Ravi-Chandar, L. Mahadevan, Nature, vol. 419, October 10, 2002, pp. 579-80.
"Geometry and Physics of Wrinkling," E. Cerda and L. Mahadevan, Physical Review Letters, fol. 90, no. 7, February 21, 2003, pp. 074302/1-4.
"Elements of Draping," E. Cerda, L. Mahadevan and J. Passini, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 101, no. 7, 2004, pp. 1806-10.

BIOLOGY PRIZE
Johanna E.M.H. van Bronswijk of Eindhoven University of Technology, The Netherlands, for doing a census of all the mites, insects, spiders, pseudoscorpions, crustaceans, bacteria, algae, ferns and fungi with whom we share our beds each night.
REFERENCES:
"Huis, Bed en Beestjes" [House, Bed and Bugs], J.E.M.H. van Bronswijk, Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Geneeskunde, vol. 116, no. 20, May 13, 1972, pp. 825-31.
"Het Stof, de Mijten en het Bed" [Dust, Mites and Bedding]. J.E.M.H. van Bronswijk Vakblad voor Biologen, vol. 53, no. 2, 1973, pp. 22-5.
"Autotrophic Organisms in Mattress Dust in the Netherlands," B. van de Lustgraaf, J.H.H.M. Klerkx, J.E.M.H. van Bronswijk, Acta Botanica Neerlandica, vol. 27, no. 2, 1978, pp 125-8.
"A Bed Ecosystem," J.E.M.H. van Bronswijk, Lecture Abstracts -- 1st Benelux Congress of Zoology, Leuven, November 4-5, 1994, p. 36.


CHEMISTRY PRIZE
Mayu Yamamoto of the International Medical Center of Japan, for developing a way to extract vanillin -- vanilla fragrance and flavoring -- from cow dung.
REFERENCE: "Novel Production Method for Plant Polyphenol from Livestock Excrement Using Subcritical Water Reaction," Mayu Yamamoto, International Medical Center of Japan.

LINGUISTICS PRIZE
Juan Manuel Toro, Josep B. Trobalon and Núria Sebastián-Gallés, of Universitat de Barcelona, for showing that rats sometimes cannot tell the difference between a person speaking Japanese backwards and a person speaking Dutch backwards.
REFERENCE: "Effects of Backward Speech and Speaker Variability in Language Discrimination by Rats," Juan M. Toro, Josep B. Trobalon and Núria Sebastián-Gallés, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, vol. 31, no. 1, January 2005, pp 95-100.

LITERATURE PRIZE
Glenda Browne of Blaxland, Blue Mountains, Australia, for her study of the word "the" -- and of the many ways it causes problems for anyone who tries to put things into alphabetical order.
REFERENCE: "The Definite Article: Acknowledging 'The' in Index Entries," Glenda Browne, The Indexer, vol. 22, no. 3 April 2001, pp. 119-22.


PEACE PRIZE
The Air Force Wright Laboratory, Dayton, Ohio, USA, for instigating research & development on a chemical weapon -- the so-called "gay bomb" -- that will make enemy soldiers become sexually irresistible to each other.
REFERENCE: "Harassing, Annoying, and 'Bad Guy' Identifying Chemicals," Wright Laboratory, WL/FIVR, Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, June 1, 1994.

NUTRITION PRIZE
Brian Wansink of Cornell University, for exploring the seemingly boundless appetites of human beings, by feeding them with a self-refilling, bottomless bowl of soup.
REFERENCE: "Bottomless Bowls: Why Visual Cues of Portion Size May Influence Intake," Brian Wansink, James E. Painter and Jill North, Obesity Research, vol. 13, no. 1, January 2005, pp. 93-100.
REFERENCE: Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, Brian Wansink, Bantom Books, 2006, ISBN 0553804340.

ECONOMICS PRIZE
Kuo Cheng Hsieh, of Taichung, Taiwan, for patenting a device, in the year 2001, that catches bank robbers by dropping a net over them.
REFERENCE: U.S. patent #6,219,959, granted on April 24, 2001, for a "net trapping system for capturing a robber immediately."

AVIATION PRIZE
Patricia V. Agostino, Santiago A. Plano and Diego A. Golombek of Universidad Nacional de Quilmes, Argentina, for their discovery that Viagra aids jetlag recovery in hamsters.
REFERENCE: "Sildenafil Accelerates Reentrainment of Circadian Rhythms After Advancing Light Schedules," Patricia V. Agostino, Santiago A. Plano and Diego A. Golombek, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 104, no. 23, June 5 2007, pp. 9834-9.


Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 10:30 PM
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