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Educational and Funny Research Honored

Dropped Food, Suicide-Country Music Link Among Award-Winning Topics

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 4, 2004; Page A09

The King of Sweden was not there and the circumstances were a bit short of pompous, but 15 intrepid scientists attained a modicum of fame last week as this year's winners of coveted Ig Nobel Prizes.

Now in their 14th irreverent year, the prizes are awarded annually for accomplishments in medicine, physics and other disciplines. But unlike their Ig-free counterparts, these awards -- sponsored by the science humor magazine, the Annals of Improbable Research -- honor accomplishments that are both educational and funny.


Jillian Clarke won a prize for her work on the "five-second rule" on dropped food. (Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

This year's recipients, who were handed their prizes by real-life Nobel laureates at a Harvard ceremony Thursday night, included two sociology professors who found a link between country music and suicide; a physicist who figured out how Hula Hoops stay up; a former police officer who co-invented and patented the comb-over; and a 17-year-old who conducted what is believed to be the first scientific test of the "five-second rule" -- the popular dictum that says it is okay to eat food that has fallen on the floor if you pick it up within five seconds.

"The Ig Nobels can help get people curious about things they might otherwise overlook," said Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals and founder of the prizes. "Nothing would be called a breakthrough if it didn't appear impossible or probably even crazy beforehand."

Al Teich, director of science and policy programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science -- a serious organization that publishes the serious journal Science -- said he is a fan of the Ig Nobels because they show that "scientific methods can be applied to problems that you don't originally think of as being susceptible to science."

They also help humanize scientists, he wrote in an e-mail.

"Politicians have the Gridiron Dinner. Scientists have the Ig Nobel Prizes. It's a chance to let down our hair (those of us who have it), have some fun, and let ourselves and the world know that we don't take ourselves quite as seriously as most people might think."

For those not blessed with enough hair to let down, but with just enough to comb across, there is, of course, the comb-over -- an imperfect yet enduringly popular invention for which the world owes a measure of thanks to Donald J. Smith of Orlando and his father, the late Frank J. Smith, this year's winners of the Ig Nobel in Engineering.

Smith the elder, a pipe fitter and plumber who died in 1985, was short on education but was a real "idea man," son Donald said in an interview last week. One of his ideas had to do with a better way to make hair on the side of the head stay put on top.

"Like most of his good ideas, it was over a gallon of his homemade wine," Smith said.

U.S. patent #4,022,227, "Method of concealing partial baldness," was issued to the father-son duo on May 10, 1977. It involved a precise method of folding, from side to top, what little hair a person might have. It worked better with a spray, the exact ingredients of which the Smiths tinkered with to get the strength and stickiness just right.

"It lasted all damn day," said Smith, a retired police officer.

Men depressed about going bald may want to avoid country music, according to James Gundlach, a sociologist at Auburn University in Alabama, and Steven Stack of Wayne State University in Detroit. Their discovery that listening to such music seems to increase people's risk of suicide won them this year's Ig Nobel in Medicine.

It started when Gundlach and his students found that suicide rates in Nashville were much higher than predicted by variables known to be correlated with suicide risk, including divorce and unemployment rates and the percentage of people who are Roman Catholic.


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