The Chronicle of Higher Education
Friday, October 1, 2004

Ichthyology Meets Ignominy at Awards Ceremony for the Ig Nobel Prizes


When Ben Wilson, a research associate at the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Columbia, learned that he would be a co-recipient of this year's Ig Nobel Prize for Biology, he was thrilled. As the lead author of a study suggesting that herring communicate by flatulating, Mr. Wilson was clearly on the short list. But in a scientific coincidence that calls to mind Leibniz's and Newton's simultaneous work on calculus, researchers in Denmark had just identified the very same phenomenon.

To the surprise of many seasoned prize-watchers, the Ig Nobel Board of Governors ("a shadowy organization," according to its coordinator, Marc A. Abrahams) elected to split the award between the two groups. The prize was one of many presented on Thursday night at Harvard University.

Dating the actual discovery is of course very difficult, but the Danish researchers -- led by Magnus Wahlberg -- published their results in the summer of 2003, while Mr. Wilson's paper didn't appear in print until early November.

"I'm very pleased to share the prize," said Mr. Wilson. "The more people who are excited about herring the better."

The Ig Nobel board has negotiated tricky nominations in the past, Mr. Abrahams said of the group, which was founded in 1991 to honor research that "cannot or should not be reproduced."

Last year's prize for engineering, for instance, was split among three creators of Murphy's Law -- Edwin A. Murphy Jr. and two colleagues who had contributed meaningfully to the work (The Chronicle, October 3).

"There's intense lobbying on the part of people who want to win prizes," said Mr. Abrahams, "or on the part of people who want to win prizes for their enemies. Or their friends." This year marked the first time that even universities stepped in to lobby on behalf of their candidates.

Another split prize this year (for medicine) went to a pair of researchers who had worked to uncover the link between listening to country music and committing suicide. James H. Gundlach and Steven Stack reported in a paper in 1992 that suicide rates among white people correlated strongly with the air time given to country songs across major urban areas.

Mr. Stack, now a professor of criminal justice at Wayne State University and one of the top suicide researchers in the country, appeared as the first author, even though the idea and initial data emerged from a graduate statistics class taught by Mr. Gundlach, a professor of sociology at Auburn University.

"He's a stronger researcher than I am," said Mr. Gundlach, who accepted the award for both of them. "If he wasn't shy, he would be doing this. ... I guess I'm a bit more of a showoff.

"This event -- it's not my style," explained Mr. Stack, whose subsequent work has looked at the links between opera and suicide, blues and suicide, and heavy metal and suicide.

Eight other prizes were awarded from the more than 5,000 nominations received by the Board of Governors. The prize for literature went to the American Nudist Research Library, in Kissimmee, Fla., while the prize for engineering was awarded to two resourceful gentlemen from Orlando who patented the comb-over.

Other honored work included a rigorous investigation of the "five-second rule" for eating food that's been dropped on the floor (which took the prize in public health) and a study in the dynamics of hula-hooping (which won for physics). The Ig Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Daisuke Inoue, the inventor of karaoke.

Mr. Abrahams, who also edits the Annals of Improbable Research, a science-humor journal, described a very straightforward selection process for the Ig Nobels: "We use one simple criterion: Is it something that first makes people laugh, and then makes them think?"

More information on the 2004 Ig Nobel Prize winners will be posted on the awards' Web site.

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