October 5, 2006

Nerds Gone Wild

The 2006 Ig Nobel Awards

by Richard Morin

Ever wonder why woodpeckers don’t get headaches? Or why dry spaghetti often breaks into more than two pieces? Or whether a female mosquito would be more attracted to the smell of human feet or the odor of limburger cheese?

Neither have I. But happily, there are scientists who have asked and answered precisely these questions. And for their efforts, they were among 18 researchers who received Ig Nobel prizes in 10 categories last night at Sanders Theatre on the Harvard University campus.

The annual award ceremonies, a spoof of the Nobel Prizes, honor scholarly research that “makes you laugh, then makes you think,” said Ig Nobel founder Marc Abraham. First awarded in 1991, this year’s Igs were presented by five actual Nobel Prize winners amid showers of paper airplanes tossed by the 1,200 audience members — another Ig Nobel tradition.

Our favorite from the current crop: Princeton University psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer. He won the Ig Noble Prize in Literature for his article: “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly,” which appeared in the March, 2005 issue of <iApplied Cognitive Psychology.

“It turns out that somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of people (depending on how you ask) admit to deliberately replacing short words with longer words in their writing in an attempt to sound smarter” Oppenheimer said in an e-mail. “The problem is that this strategy backfires — such writing is reliably judged to come from less intelligent authors. Back when I was a graduate student, I graded a lot of student papers, and I hated slogging through thesaurus-heavy writing. And yet, students kept turning it in. It made me curious as to whether my intuitions were typical. So I decided to test it.”

As for the Ig Nobel, this laureate couldn’t be prouder.

“I’m excited about the Ig,” Oppenheimer said. “How often does one get a chance to receive a competitive international award for one’s work?”

And The Winners Are…

Here’s a partial list of 2006 Ig Nobel Prize winners. A complete list, including breakthrough research on a particularly disgusting insect and a hiccup cure too revolting to reference here, is available at www.improb.com/ig/.

MATHEMATICS: Nic Svenson and Piers Barnes of the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organization, for calculating the number of photographs you need to take to ensure that nobody in a group photo will have their eyes closed

REFERENCE: “Blink-Free Photos, Guaranteed,” Velocity, June 2006.

PHYSICS: Basile Audoly and Sebastien Neukirch of the Université Pierre et Marie Curie, in Paris, for their insights into why, when you bend dry spaghetti, it often breaks into more than two pieces.

REFERENCE: “Fragmentation of Rods by Cascading Cracks: Why Spaghetti Does Not Break in Half,” Basile Audoly and Sebastien Neukirch, Physical Review Letters, vol. 95, no. 9, August 26, 2005.

BIOLOGY: Bart Knols (of Wageningen Agricultural University, in Wageningen, the Netherlands; and of the National Institute for Medical Research, in Ifakara Centre, Tanzania, and of the International Atomic Energy Agency, in Vienna Austria) and Ruurd de Jong (of Wageningen Agricultural University and of Santa Maria degli Angeli, Italy) for showing that the female malaria mosquito Anopheles gambiae is attracted equally to the smell of limburger cheese and to the smell of human feet.

REFERENCE: “On Human Odour, Malaria Mosquitoes, and Limburger Cheese,” Bart. G.J. Knols, The Lancet, vol. 348, November 9, 1996.

ACOUSTICS: D. Lynn Halpern (of Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, and Brandeis University, and Northwestern University), Randolph Blake (of Vanderbilt University and Northwestern University) and James Hillenbrand (of Western Michigan University and Northwestern University) for conducting experiments to learn why people dislike the sound of fingernails scraping on a blackboard.

REFERENCE: ‘Psychoacoustics of a Chilling Sound,” D. Lynn Halpern, Randolph Blake and James Hillenbrand, Perception and Psychophysics, vol. 39, 1986.

ORNITHOLOGY: Ivan R. Schwab, of University of California Davis, and the late Philip R.A. May of the University of California Los Angeles, for exploring and explaining why woodpeckers don’t get headaches.

REFERENCE: “Cure for a Headache,” Ivan R Schwab, British Journal of Ophthalmology, vol. 86, 2002.

The Declining Quality of Teachers

Perhaps what we need is a No Teacher Left Behind program.

Certainly there’s a need: School teachers today are less qualified than they once were. And you can blame growing opportunities for women in other, higher-paying professions — and stingy government officials — for the teacher brain drain, says economist Marigee P. Bacolod of the University of California at Irvine.

Bacolod examined standardized tests scores, the selectivity of colleges that teachers attended and other measures of excellence. She found a dramatic drop in teacher quality since the 1950s, with the biggest decline occurring in the 1980s.

For example, she found that in 1970 about 30 percent of all women in their twenties who scored in the top 20% on IQ and other tests of ability became teachers compared with only 8% or 9% of twentysomething women in the 1990s. That’s key, because about seven in 10 of all teachers in grades kindergarten through 12th grade are women, a proportion that hasn’t changed much in decades.

At the same time, the proportion of smart women who entered other professions soared as doors to other, higher paying professions slowly swung open. One answer: Raise teacher salaries, which Bacolod found, will significantly increase the percentage of smart women — and men — who become teachers.

Shop Till We Drop

Men are as likely as women to be compulsive buyers, a condition that affects about one in 20 adults in the United States, according to Lorrin Koran, emeritus professor of psychiatry at Stanford University’s school of medicine.

Koran and his colleagues surveyed 2,513 adults in 2004 and found that 6%of all women and 5.5% of all men exhibited symptoms of hard-core compulsive shopping, including irresistible and often senseless impulses to buy that they felt largely powerless to resist.

“Compared with other respondents, compulsive buyers were younger, and a greater proportion reported incomes under $50,000…and were more than four times less likely to pay off credit card balances in full,” Koran and his colleagues reported in the latest American Journal of Psychiatry.