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Saturday, October 06, 2007


I paused last Thursday, to take note of the 50th anniversary of the launch of the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, which I am told actually means “traveling companion”. According to “The Wide World of Words” the name Sputnik gave a jolt to the English language, laying the ground work for words like “beatnik”, “neatnik”, “refusenik”, “peacenik”, and “Muttnik” used to describe the first dog (Russian) orbited into space. U.S. rockets from the time, which seemed to keep blowing up, were called “Kaputnik” and “Flopnick”. I presume that a rejection of this Russian invasion of the English language would have been made by “Nikniks”, but maybe not. In any case the subject lead me, rather naturally, to a consideration of the role of popular culture in the advancement of science, which leads one naturally to the Annals of Improbable Research, and their annual IgNobel Prizes – pronounced “ig-NO-bell Prize-es”.
The prizes were first awarded in 1991, when the prize in Medicine went to Alan Kligerman., the inventor of Beano, and the prize for Interdisciplinary Research went to Josiah Carberry for his work in psychoceramics – or “cracked pots”, and the Peace Prize was awarded to Edward Teller, “for his lifelong efforts to change the meaning of ‘Peace as we know it’.
In 1992 the prize for Art was presented to Jim Knowlton and the National Endowment for the Arts for their classic anatomy poster, “Penises of the Animal Kingdom”, even though rumors of a pop-up book version proved to be intriguing but false. Dr. Cecil Jacobson was awarded the Biology Prize for developing a simple, single-handed method of quality control for sperm banks, Ivette Bassa won the prize in chemistry for developing bright blue Jell-O, and Yuri Struchkov of the Institute of Organoelement Compounds in Moscow won the Literature prize by publishing 948 scientific papers over 9 years, about one new paper every 4 days.
Among the 1993 winners were the Biology prize for a study of “Salmonella Excretion in Joy-Riding Pigs”. The prize in Economics that year went to Ravi Batra, author of best sellers, “The Great Depression of 1990”, and “Surviving the Great Depression of 1990”, the prize in Medicine went to three doctors who wrote “Acute Management of the Zipper- Entrapped Penis”, and the prize in Mathematics went to Robert Faid, who calculated that the odds were 860,609,175,188, 282, 100 to one that Michail Gorbachev was the Antichrist. Ron Popeil was also honored as inventor of the Veg-O-Matic, the Pocket Fisherman and the Inside-the-Shell Egg Scrambler.
The 1994 prize in Chemistry went to Texas State Senator Bob Glascow, who wanted to make it illegal in his state to purchase test tubes without a permit, and the prize in Literature went to L.Ron Hubbard for you know what. Two doctors at the U. of Arizona Health Services Center won that year’s prize in Medicine for their report “Failure of Electric Shock Treatment for Rattlesnake Envenomation”, concerning their patient who attempted to treat his venomous snake bite by connecting his lip via spark plug wires to a revving auto engine. The Southern Baptists Church of Alabama also won the Mathematics award for their county-by-county estimate of how many Alabamians are going to Hell.
The 1995 prize for Literature went to Busch and Starling for their research into, “Rectal Foreign Bodies; Case Reports and a Comprehensive Review”. Among other items the reports detail seven light bulbs, a knife sharpener, two flashlights, a spring, a snuff box, an oil can, 11 different kinds of vegetables, a jeweler’s saw, a frozen pig’s tail, a suitcase key and a magazine.
The 1999 prize in Health Care went to the inventors of U.S. Patent 3,216,424; a high speed spinning birthing table. The year of 2000 saw the award for Chemistry go jointly to doctors from the University if Pisa, Italy and the University of California at San Diego for their discovery that romantic love is biologically identical to obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Chris Niswander won that year’s award for Computer Science for his development of software which detects when your cat is walking across your keyboard. He called it, PawSense. David Dunning of Cornell and Justin Kreuger of U.of Illinois won the prize in Psychology that year for their report, “Unskilled and Unaware of It; How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”.
The banner year of 2002 was marked by a University of Sydney study of human belly button fluff, which won the Interdisciplinary Research Award, and the winner of the Literary award for a report on “The Effects of Pre-Existing Inappropriate Highlighting on Reading Comprehension”, a report on “Scrotal Asymmetry in Man and in Ancient Sculpture” which won the Medicine award, and the Interdisciplinary Research winner from Stockholm, “Chickens Prefer Beautiful Humans”.
But most notable that year was the award for Literature which was given to John Trinkaus of the Zicklin School of Business (NYC) who had published over 80 detailed reports on how people wear baseball caps, the color of sports shoes, how many swimmers stay in the shallow end of the pool, how many drivers come to full and complete stops at stop signs, and how many people enter the 10 items or less line with more than 10 items. Someday, somebody is going to ask one of those questions and really want an answer. And now we will have one.
The 2004 winner of the Award for Fluid Dynamics was entitled, “Pressures Produced When Penguins Poo – Calculations on Avian Defecation”, and the 2005 winner of the Peace Prize monitored the brains of locusts while they watched selected scenes from “Star Wars”. 2006 was a very good year for studies involving cheese, in one way or another. There was the Biology winner that showed the Anopheles mosquito was equally attracted to smelly feet and limburger cheese, and the “Ultrasonic Velocity in Cheddar Cheese as Affected by Temperature”, which won the Chemistry Award, and the winner in Medicine was titled, “Termination of Intractable Hiccups with Digital Rectal Massage”. And the winner for Literature was Daniel Oppenheimer of Princeton, for his study, “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.”

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