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Jewish World Review Nov. 2, 2001 / 16 Mar-Cheshvan 5762

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Recent, recognized research is a hard nut to crack -- AS no doubt was appropriate, this year's various Nobel Prize winners in physics, economics, peace and so forth got lots of publicity. To say nothing of a bunch of dough.

And even though all that is important, I am - perversely, I admit - equally interested in the annual Ig Nobel Prizes, also awarded earlier this month.

It's possible that you aren't as up to speed on the Ig Nobels as you are on the more-famous Nobels, and if that's the case you may be grateful that you have me today. I will enlighten you. No need to thank me. I'm just nobly doing my terribly difficult, underpaid, under-appreciated job.

The Ig Nobels are presented each year at Harvard University for achievements that "cannot or should not be reproduced." The prizes are sponsored by a science humor magazine named the Annals of Improbable Research, the editor of which is a funny guy I know named Marc Abrahams. If you have a deeper interest in all of this than I am able to satisfy here, you may check out

Somehow, Abrahams has figured out how to make fun of strange research while getting the researchers to like being made fun of. What kind of research? Well, let us ponder some of the work that was just honored.

Peter Barss of McGill University won an Ig Nobel this year for his report in The Journal of Trauma called "Injuries Due to Falling Coconuts."

I admit I am behind in my reading, so copies of The Journal of Trauma have simply stacked up on my bedside table along with unread back issues of Acne Anthology and Bedsore Quarterly. Thus, I cannot tell you a lot about what Barss discovered in his groundbreaking (and possibly skullbreaking) work.

But in my own experience, coconuts don't have to fall very far to produce injuries. You can, in fact, drop an average-size coconut from your hands to your toes and find it a painful experience. The good thing for me is that I don't like coconut and thus rarely handle the darn things.

Another Ig Nobel Prize went to David Schmidt of the University of Massachusetts for his pioneering work on the question of why shower curtains billow inwards. Perhaps you, too, have noticed that phenomenon. I don't know what Schmidt discovered about this, but I have learned that when shower curtains billow inward, there's almost inevitably someone on the outside of the curtain dropping coconuts on them.

Buck Weimer of Pueblo, Colo., was given an Ig Nobel for inventing a product called "Under-Ease," described as airtight underwear with a replaceable charcoal filter that removes odors before they escape. This, too, may somehow be related to coconuts, but I frankly prefer to move right along to the next prize winner.

An Ig Nobel went to the authors of an article in another publication I'm a little behind on in my reading: National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. W8158. In a March 2001 article, Joel Slemrod of the University of Michigan and Wojciech Kopczuk of the University of British Columbia concluded that people find a way to postpone their deaths if that would qualify them for a lower rate on the inheritance tax. By eating coconuts?

I'd like to offer you detailed analyses of the rest of the winners, but I've just dropped a coconut on my fingers and typing is painful. So I can't tell you about the Ig Nobels that went to the founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society or the one that went to a fellow who studied "Glee in Small Groups of Preschool Children" or the guy who created an amusement park called "Stalin World." My guess is this last man was out of his coconut.

Comment on JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' column by clicking here.

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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2001. All rights reserved