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Ig Nobels Given For Wacky, Odd Research

By Joanne Y. Shih

The highly entertaining Sixteenth 1st Annual Ig Nobel Prizes were awarded Thursday night in the Sanders Theatre at Harvard. The event, possibly the Rocky Horror Picture Show of ceremonies, recognized ten ingenious achievements, some more useful than others, in fields ranging from literature to medicine to mathematics.

Several Ig Nobel winners from previous years made appearances, much to the audience’s delight. Loud whoops and cheers graced the entrance of 2003’s Biology Prize winner, C.W. Moeliker, from the Netherlands, who was the first person to document homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck.

This year’s winners were just as interesting — and some just as questionable. Ivan R. Schwab, the first winner of the night, received the prize for ornithology for explaining why woodpeckers never have headaches.

The winners of the acoustics prize, D. Lynn Halpern, Randolph Blake, and James Hillenbrand, were applauded for their experiments on why humans cannot stand the sound of fingernails scraping on a chalkboard. Apparently, the sounds are cringe-inducing not because of their high frequency but because they resemble primitive animal warning noises. Following the acceptance speech for this prize was a rather painful demonstration of their experiment.

Francis M. Fesmire, from the University of Tennessee College of Medicine, won the prize in medicine for his discovery of a most unusual way to stop hiccups, reported in his “Termination of Intractable Hiccups with Digital Rectal Massage.” Fesmire himself, who declared that he was “honored to be the first person ever to terminate” hiccups this way, distributed free samples of latex gloves and lubrication after the ceremony.

The prize in mathematics was awarded to Nic Svenson and Piers Barnes of Australia for calculating the number of photographs necessary to almost ensure that no one in a group photo will have their eyes closed. The formula instructs photographers to divide the number of people in the picture by two if the lighting is poor and by three if it is good.

In addition to the awards, other highlights of the ceremony were the 24/7 Lectures, which included MIT Professor Missy L. Cummings and Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek, also from MIT. Cummings’ seven-word or less speech, following her 24-second technical lecture, was on the topic of automobile safety: “Don’t talk. Don’t e-mail. Just drive.”

Wilczek, who won the Physics Nobel in 2004, had to lecture on the topic of dark matter. His explanation? “What you see isn’t what you get.”

The night, with the theme of inertia, got off to an interesting start even before the actual event began. While waiting for the pre-ceremony, a few costumed men milled about the lobby, including one completely covered in silver paint wearing nothing but briefs, and another with a gigantic cardboard model of a human cell taped to his head.

Similar instances of randomness occurred throughout the two-hour event.

The tradition of throwing paper airplanes onto the stage continued this year; in fact, it was also done en masse, as buckets of the airplanes were dumped from the ceiling of the hall whenever a prize was awarded.

A minute past 7:30 p.m., the pre-ceremony show commenced with a group of performers, including a king and queen, rhythmically walking to the tempo of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, in an act entitled “Franz Liszt vs. Inertia.” Paper airplanes were freely thrown, even though a projector screen before the audience kindly requested them to cease and desist from unleashing paper projectiles, a ploy of reverse psychology, no doubt.

The Ig Informal Lectures, a free event where the winners will be able to explain the reasoning behind their research, will be held tomorrow in the Stata Center at 1 p.m. Tickets are available at the MIT Press Bookstore.

More information about the Ig Nobels and the Annals of Improbable Research, the international science humor magazine that sponsors the awards, can be viewed at