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The insider's guide: The IgNobel prize

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WASHINGTON -- Research into smelly feet, a study on the sound of fingernails on a blackboard and a device that repels teenagers with an annoying high-pitched hum. It must be the IgNobel Prize.

What is the IgNobel Prize?

It's the annual award given at Harvard University by Annals of Improbable Research magazine for weird, whacky and sometimes worthless scientific research. According to editor Marc Abrahams: "The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative -- and spur people's interest in science, medicine and technology."

Is it connected to the other Nobel awards?

All the research is real and has been published in often-prestigious scientific and medical journals. However, unlike the Nobel prizes awarded this week by the Swedish Academy of Sciences, IgNobel winners receive no money, little recognition and have virtually no hope of transforming science or medicine. Even the name of the award, a play on the word "ignoble," is meant to be deprecating.

Tell us about this year's awards.

This year's winners were honored -- or maybe dishonored -- at a raucous ceremony at Harvard's inappropriately opulent Sanders Theater. Winners included a doctor who put his finger on a cure for hiccups, two men who think there is something to the old adage that feet smell like cheese, and researchers who discovered that dung beetles won't tuck in to just any old pile of ... well, dung.

Much of the attention this year seems to have been on why we hate the sound of fingernails on a blackboard.

Randolph Blake and two colleagues earned an IgNobel award for work on that subject. They discovered that we hate the sound because of its frequency. The nails on a blackboard research was part of a bigger, legitimate project, according to Blake, a Vanderbilt University psychology professor who specializes in vision. He, along with Dr. D. Lynn Halpern and James Hillenbrand, did the research 20 years ago while at Northwestern University. Blake remembers some volunteers refusing to participate after learning they'd have to endure the obnoxious screeching.

Does the research honored at the IgNobels ever prove useful?

Howard Stapleton's research certainly has. He invented teenager repellant. His device, called the Mosquito, emits a high frequency siren-like noise that is painful to the ears of teens and those in their early 20s, but inaudible to adults. Hundreds of units have been sold to retailers, local governments, police departments and homeowners all over Britain. The company is shipping its first Mosquito units for sale in the United States next week. "The success of this has knocked my socks off," Stapleton says.

Tell us about the crazy stuff.

Other winning research included a U.S. and Israeli team's discovery that hiccups could be cured with a finger up the rectum and a study into why woodpeckers do not get headaches.

What are the award's origins?

What started as a small event in 1991 to honor obscure and humorous scientific achievements has grown into an international happening, with some of this year's winners traveling from Australia, Kuwait and France.

Who presents the awards?

The awards are given out by real Nobel laureates, including Harvard physics professor Roy Glauber, who stays behind afterward to sweep up.


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