Why woodpeckers don't get headaches (and other Ig Nobel Prize winners)

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The Independent Online

A scientist who studied the anatomy of the woodpecker's skull to find out why it does not suffer from headaches after banging its head against a tree trunk 12,000 times a day has won an alternative Nobel prize.

Ivan Schwab, of the University of California, Davis, has joined the pantheon of scientists whose research has been deemed quirky enough to win an "Ig Nobel" - an alternative to the genuine Nobel prizes.

Dr Schwab's study, published earlier this year in the British Journal of Ophthalmology, pointed out that woodpeckers hammer a hard surface up to 20 times a second at 1,200-times the force of gravity without suffering concussion, detached retinas or any of the other symptoms of "shaken-baby syndrome".

"For us, life's headaches are common enough, but what if you spent your life battering your head against a wall?" he asked. For his efforts, Dr Schwab was night fêted at the Ig Nobel awards ceremony at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts, where he received the coveted prize in ornithology.

Meanwhile, a British inventor who developed an audio device that can be heard by teenagers but not by adults over the age of 30 won the Ig Nobel "peace" prize for his contribution to the inter-generation divide.

The device emits high-frequency sounds that cannot normally be heard by adults but are easily discernible to teenagers.

It could either be used by late-night shopping centres to annoy adolescents who linger for too long or as a special ring-tone so that teachers cannot hear mobile phones sneaked into class by students.

Howard Stapleford, managing director of Compound Security Systems in Merthyr Tydfil, was chosen along with the other Ig Nobel Prize winners for carrying out research that "makes people laugh and then makes them think". Mr Stapleford said that he had designed the device originally as a security aid for shops and other premises plagued by teenagers but later on thought that he could use the same technology to help teenagers who wanted to take their mobile phones into the classroom.

"I think it was the combination of uses that made the organisers of the awards smile. The device can be turned on when shopkeepers are being troubled by gangs of teenagers," Mr Stapleforth said. "Alternatively, the high-frequency sound can be incorporated into a mobile phone ring tone so that it is difficult for people over the age of 30 to hear it," he said.

The winner of the Ig Nobel prize in medicine was Francis Fesmire, of University Hospital in Florida, for a study that showed that intractable hiccups can be terminated by "digital rectal massage".

"Initially, gagging and tongue pulling manoeuvres were attempted with no change in symptomatology," Dr Fesmire wrote in a study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine. "Digital rectal massage was then attempted using a slow circumferential motion. The frequency of hiccups immediately began to slow, with a termination of all hiccups within 30 seconds," the valiant scientist found.

The chemistry prize was awarded to a team of Spanish scientists who investigated the velocity of ultrasonic sound in cheddar cheese and the biology prize went to a team of researchers who found that female mosquitoes were equally attracted to the smells of limburger cheese and human feet.

The physics prize was won by a team who studied "fragmentation in rods by cascading cracks", which can account for why bending dry spaghetti always causes it to break into more than just two pieces.

The Ig Nobel literature prize was given to a study entitled: "Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilised Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly."

Previous Ig Nobel 'triumphs'

2005

Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow and József Gál won the fluid dynamics prize for calculating the pressure that builds inside a penguin, as detailed in their report: Pressures Produced When Penguins Poo - Calculations on Avian Defecation.

2004

Steven Stack and James Gundlach won the medicine prize for their study on the effect of country music on suicide.

An analysis of US radio playlists revealed that as the amount of country music played went up, so did the white suicide rate.

2003

Eleanor Maguire and her team at University College London won the medicine prize for a paper on taxi drivers' brains that showed they were better than average. Dr Maguire conducted brain scans, and found that the part of the brain thought to hold memories, the hippocampus, was larger in cabbies than in other people.

2002

Indian academics K P Sreekumar and the late G Nirmalan, of Kerala Agricultural University, India, won the mathematics prize for their analytical report: Estimation of the Total Surface Area in Indian Elephants.

2001

Joel Slemrod, of the University of Michigan Business School, and Wojciech Kopczuk, of the University of British Columbia, won the economics prize for finding that people would find a way to postpone death to qualify for low inheritance tax.

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