Chicken Plucking, Insect Scraping, Etc.

Here's a comforting thought for any scientist feeling overlooked by the Nobel jurists this month: At least you didn't win an Ig Nobel, the spoof prize given by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research. In one of Harvard's hallowed halls last week, the seventh "First" Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony honored 10 individuals or research teams for achievements that "cannot or should not be reproduced."

One of the dubious accolades went to Bernard Vonnegut of the State University of New York, Albany--novelist Kurt Vonnegut's older brother. Vonnegut won a posthumous meteorology award for his report debunking chicken plucking as a way to measure tornado wind speed. In his report, published in the October 1975 issue of Weatherwise, Vonnegut explained that using a cannon to fire a dead chicken into a tornado--a technique described in 1842 and 1890--was unreliable because it is impossible to tell whether the cannon or the wind plucked the feathers.

The discovery that elevator Muzak appears to stimulate the immune system--and thus may help prevent the common cold--hauled in the medicine prize. Saliva levels of immunoglobulin A rose 14% in students who listened to 30 minutes of "smooth jazz" Muzak, according to a report presented at the Eastern Psychological Association convention in April by Carl Charnetski and Francis Brennan, Jr. of Wilkes University, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and James Harrison of Muzak Ltd. in Seattle. "It is very serious scientific research working out very well," Charnetski told ScienceNOW.

The only winner to collect his prize at the 9 October ceremony was urban ecologist Mark Hostetler. A newly minted doctorate from the University of Florida, Gainesville, Hostetler had logged 12,000 miles in his quest to scrape insects off the windshields of Greyhound buses from Massachusetts to British Columbia in researching his Ig Nobel-prizewinning book, That Gunk on Your Car: A unique guide to insects of North America (Ten Speed Press, 1997). The book features color illustrations--before and after windshield contact, as well as lots of natural history. Says Hostetler about his award: "At least these insects did not die in vain."

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