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And The Award For Best Award Goes To…

Awards? We’ve Got Them By The Bucketful In America. After all, this is the country that invented the Participation Award in which a 5-year-old gets a trophy the size of the Stanley Cup just for attending T-ball practice.

In Hollywood alone, we have the Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, People’s Choice Awards, MTV Movie Awards, Internet Movie Awards, the Screen Actors Guild, Directors Guild and Producers Guild Awards. Among others.

There are awards for an entire spectrum of ethnic groups, for gays and lesbians, short subjects, long subjects, horror movies, science fiction movies, political movies, religious movies and porn movies. Even box-office bombs are honored each year with the Golden Raspberry Awards, or Razzies.

Lesser known but just as noteworthy are the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards, the Foot in Mouth Awards and the Rotten Sneakers Award.

It’s enough to make you jaded.

That’s why it’s refreshing to take note from time to time of the unique and exclusive Ig Nobel awards, presented each year at Harvard University by the Annals of Improbable Research magazine.

With tongue firmly in cheek, the Ig Noble folks honor scientific articles that have some humorous or unexpected aspect, such as the two California scientists who conducted extensive research on why woodpeckers don’t get headaches.

Or the group of researchers who studied why pregnant women don’t tip over. Women, it appears, have slight differences in their lumbar vertebrae that helps compensate for their changing center of gravity. So women are different. Who knew?

Or the group that investigated whether suicide rates are linked to the amount of country music played on the radio.

Or a group of Swiss scientists who conducted a study that confirmed an empty beer bottle makes a better weapon than a full beer bottle in a fight.

The latest honorees display the kind of curiosity, verve and dash that very well could make scientific research a spectator sport.

Take Michael L. Smith, a neurobiology and behavior PhD candidate at Cornell University, for instance.

It seems Smith was stung on a testicle by a bee. It didn’t hurt as much as he thought it would. So, presumably inspired by Isaac Newton who, after being hit on the head by an apple developed the theory of gravity, he wanted to know why some stings hurt worse than others.

So he allowed himself to be stung by honey bees on 25 different parts of his body and then rate the pain on a scale of 1-10. His resulting “sting pain index” ranked the nostril, upper lip and penis as most painful and the skull, middle toe tip, and upper arm as least painful.

The practical applications are unclear unless the military sees in it a use for “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Other winners have included:

— A group who invented a chemical recipe to partially un-boil an egg. 

— A team of Georgia Tech researchers who tested the biological principle that nearly all mammals empty their bladders in about 21 seconds (plus or minus 13 seconds). One of the researchers got the idea while potty training his toddlers. His team has since moved on to studying the physics of defecation in mammals. Or as he puts it, “We went from number one to number two.”

— A group that discovered that the word “huh?” (or its equivalent) seems to exist in every human language—and for not being quite sure why.

—- Researchers who tried to use mathematical techniques to determine whether and how Moulay Ismael the Bloodthirsty, the Sharifian Emperor of Morocco, managed, during the years from 1697 through 1727, to father 888 children.

— Scientists who observed that when you attach a weighted stick to the rear end of a chicken, the chicken then walks in a manner similar to that in which dinosaurs are thought to have walked.

— A team that determined that acute appendicitis can be accurately diagnosed by the amount of pain evident when the patient is driven over speed bumps.

The awards aren’t always bestowed for strict scientific research.

The prize for mathematics was once awarded to the Southern Baptist Church of Alabama for their county-by-county estimate of how many Alabama citizens will go to hell if they don’t repent.

Or a prize in Economics was awarded to the Bangkok Metropolitan Police for offering to pay policemen extra cash if the policemen refuse to take bribes.

A special Peace Prize was once awarded to Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus, for making it illegal to applaud in public and to the Belarus State Police for arresting a one-armed man for applauding.

Then there was the special salute for the Air Force Wright Laboratory of Dayton, Ohio, for instigating research and development on a chemical weapon – the so-called “gay bomb” – that will make enemy soldiers become sexually irresistible to each other.

It’s science. You can’t make this stuff up.

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Robert Rector
Robert Rector
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