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Woodpecker Headaches and Hiccup Treatments Honored

6 October 2006 (All day)
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Francis Fesmire

No glass of water.
Emergency physician Francis Fesmire provided kits to ceremony participants to help rid them of unwanted hiccups.

It's not quite a Nobel prize, but it's arguably more fun. Last night, scientists from Australia to Kuwait descended on the Sanders Theater at Harvard University for the tongue-in-cheek 16th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony. They were honored for achievements ranging from blink-free photos to erudition.

The Ig Nobels, bequeathed annually by the science humor journal The Annals of Improbable Research, recognize findings that are based in science but are funny, bizarre, and sometimes downright disturbing, such as a 2003 winner who documented duck necrophilia. This year, Ivan Schwab of the University of California, Davis, accepted his Ornithology Prize replete in a beak and a giant plume of red, for his work explaining why woodpeckers don't get headaches. Their brains and eyes, Schwab claims, are very tightly compacted in their skulls according to modern packing theory, and therefore do not bounce around in their skulls as they peck. Emergency physician Frances Fesmire of the University of Tennessee College of Medicine in Chattanooga earned the Medicine Prize for a technique he pioneered 18 years ago to eliminate intractable hiccups: digital rectal massage. In his acceptance speech, Fesmire told a rapt audience, "My son said it's sort of like winning a Darwin award, but you don't have to die to get it." Fesmire distributed Dr. Fran's Anti-Hiccup Kits after the ceremony.

The Peace Prize went to Howard Stapleton of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, for an invention dubbed The Mosquito, an acoustic teenager repellent that emits annoying high frequency sounds that only younger people can hear. The Acoustics award went to D. Lynn Halpern, Randolph Blake, and James Hillenbrand of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, for showing that people wince at fingernails scraping across a blackboard because the sound is reminiscent of nonhuman primate vocalizations. Wasmia Al-Houty of Kuwait University and Faten Al-Mussalam of the Kuwait Environment Public Authority took the Nutrition Prize for showing that dung beetles distinguish among dung subtypes. The Physics Prize rewarded work that explored why uncooked spaghetti fractures into more than two pieces when broken. The presentation of this award, to Basile Audoly and Sebastien Neukirch of the Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris, was followed by a demonstration of spaghetti-breaking on stage.

Cheese-based work fared especially well. Food technologists Antonio Mulet, José Javier Benedito and José Bon of the University of Valencia, Spain, and Carmen Rosselló of the University of Illes Balears, in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, collected the Chemistry Prize for delving into how temperature affects the velocity of ultrasonic soundwaves through cheese. And the Biology Prize went to Bart Knols and Ruurd de Jong of Wageningen Agricultural University, the Netherlands, for demonstrating that malarial mosquitoes are equally attracted to smelly feet and limburger cheese. The Ig Nobel award categories change annually, depending on who the winners are.

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