Ig Nobels honor 'weird science'

Dan Meyer wanted to thank the presenters of this year's Ig Nobel Prizes for honoring his work with a British radiologist examining the side effects of sword swallowing. To really make the point, he thanked them with a sword still in his throat.

The 17th annual Ig Nobel prizes, presented Thursday night at Harvard University's Sanders Theatre,. recognize research that makes people laugh and then think. This year?s prizes were awarded for scholarly efforts such as developing a way to extract vanilla from cow dung and studying what makes sheets wrinkle. Seven of the 10 winners, who hail from five continents, traveled to Harvard at their own expense to accept the awards, which were handed to them by genuine Nobel Laureates.

The ceremony was kept on track by an 8-year-old girl, known as "Miss Sweety Poo," who cut-off acceptance speeches that went over their alloted 60 seconds by repeatedly saying, "Please stop, I'm bored." Stage sweepers, including Nobel Laureate Roy Glauber, periodically removed paper airplanes that were launched by the audience. But this is all part of Ig Nobel tradition.

"(The first year) we all kept expecting some grown-up to come in and tell us to stop this and go on home," says award creator Marc Abrahams, the editor of the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research (AIR).

No Ig Nobel winners have gone on to win a Nobel prize yet, says Abrahams. But Glauber was a regular stage-sweeper at the annual ceremony for 10 years before he won his Nobel.

As for the side effects of sword swallowing, Meyer, of Antioch, Tenn., says, "Most sword swallowing injuries happen either after another smaller injury when the throat is tender and swollen, or while doing something out of the ordinary, like swallowing multiple swords." Meyer went a month without solid food after doing the latter in 2005. Meyer is not sure if talking with a sword in his throat increases the probability of injury.

The Ig Nobel for nutrition went to a concept that sounds like a restaurant marketing ploy: a bottomless bowl of soup.

Cornell University professor Brian Wansink used bowls rigged with tubes that slowly and imperceptibly refilled them with creamy tomato soup to see if test subjects ate more than they would with a regular bowl.

"We found that people eating from the refillable soup bowls ended up eating 73 percent more soup, but they never rated themselves as any more full," said Wansink, a professor of consumer behavior and applied economics. "They thought 'How can I be full when the bowl has so much left in it?'"

His conclusion: "We as Americans judge satiety with our eyes, not with our stomachs."

Harvard professor of applied mathematics L. Mahadevan. and professor Enrique Cerda Villablanca. of Universidad de Santiago in Chile won for their studies on a problem that has vexed anyone who ever made up a bed: wrinkled sheets.

The wrinkle patterns seen on sheets are replicated in nature on human and animal skin, in science and in technology.

"We showed that you can understand all of them using a very simple formula," Mahadevan said.

His research, he says, shows that "there's no reason good science can't be fun."

A team at Quilmes National University in Buenos Aires, Argentina, came up with a jet-lag study, which found that hamsters given the anti-impotence drug Viagra needed 50% less time to recover from a six-hour time zone change. They didn't fly rodents to Paris, incidentally — they just turned the lights off and on at different times.

Odd as it might be, that research might have implications for millions of humans.

Other Ig Nobel Prize winners:

•Biology:Johanna E.M.H. van Bronswijk. of the Netherlands for doing a census of all the visible and microscopic creepy-crawlies who reside in beds.

•Chemistry:Mayu Yamamoto. of Japan for developing a way to extract vanilla fragrance and flavoring from cow dung.

•Linguistics:Juan Manuel Toro,. Josep B. Trobalon. and Núria Sebastián-Gallés. for research done in Spain showing that rats sometimes cannot differentiate between someone speaking Japanese backwards and someone speaking Dutch backwards.

•Literature:Glenda Browne. of Australia for her study of the word "the" and the problems it causes for putting things into alphabetical order.

•Peace:The Air Force Wright Laboratory, now know as the Air Force Research Laboratory, in Dayton, Ohio, for instigating research on a chemical weapon that will make enemy combatants become sexually irresistible to one another.

•Economics:Kuo Cheng Hsieh. for patenting a device in 2001 that drops a net over bank robbers to catch them.

Former winners attended the ceremonies as well, including the creator of the plastic pink flamingo, the inventor of an alarm clock that runs away and hides, and the first doctor to cure intractable hiccups by applying digital rectal massage.