Jewish World Review Oct. 15, 2004 / 30 Tishrei, 5765

David Grimes

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Science tales from the fringe | When you think of great inventors, the names of Frank and Donald Smith may not be the first that leap to mind.

Yet millions of follicle-challenged men owe the Smiths a huge debt, for they have the dubious distinction of inventing -- and patenting -- the comb-over. Frank Smith and his son, Donald, both of Orlando, received U.S. patent number 4,022,227 in 1977. Frank was looking for a way to cover the balding top of his head but didn't like the idea of a toupee. So he came up with the idea of combing long strands of hair from the sides and back of his head over the top.

Frank was going to get rich by selling a hairspray to hold the comb-over in place, but, alas, he never got around to making the spray. But that is not to say that the Smiths' contribution to unattractive hairstyling has gone unnoticed. Late last month, they were awarded an Ig Nobel prize at Harvard University in the field of engineering. The Ig Nobels are handed out annually to researchers and/or inventors whose contributions to society could most charitably be described as unconventional.

Other recipients this year included the inventor of karaoke and two Auburn University researchers who did a paper on the effect of country music on suicide rates. (Oddly, no one did a paper on the effect of karaoke on suicide rates. Perhaps everyone was too despondent to even contemplate such a thing.)

One of my favorite winning entries was an examination of the "5 second rule" by high school student Jillian Clarke. The 5 second rule states that food dropped on the floor can be safely picked up and eaten if it has been in contact with the floor for 5 seconds or less. Clarke's research led to several conclusions:

  • People are more likely to eat dropped candy than they are dropped broccoli.

  • Women are more likely than men to eat dropped food.

  • If your floor is really scuzzy, bacteria will contaminate dropped food in less than 5 seconds.

  • If you have a dog in the house, chances are the dropped food will be eaten before it makes it to the floor.

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    Actually, I made up that last one, but I feel certain that future research will back me up.

    A team of Canadian researchers won the biology award for their brave examination of the question: "Why do herring fart?"

    The researchers believe they do it as a means of communication, which makes sense to me. After all, male humans send all sorts of messages this way, including:

  • It is time for the football game to begin.

  • I am in need of a fresh beer.

  • I wish to be alone.

  • I am in a good mood.

  • I am in a bad mood.

  • I am awake.

    Whether herring communication reaches this level of sophistication, I can't say.

    But it kind of makes you think twice about swimming in the ocean.

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    JWR contributor David Grimes is a columnist for The Sarasota Herald Tribune. Comment by clicking here.


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