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He spends his life doing offbeat scientific inquiries

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) Dr. Peter Fong wanted his clams to get busy.

He figured a glass of white Zinfandel and some Barry White was out of the question. So he gave them Prozac.

Presto.

"It worked really well," Fong reported from his lab at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. "Clams don't want to spawn on their own. But within five or 10 minutes of introducing the Prozac, 80 to 100 percent of the males started spawning."

The revelation was a boon for New Jersey clam farmers. At least it would have been. But it turns out most clammers already use serotonin, a hormone triggered by Prozac, to prod coy bivalves into living up to the whole "happy-as-clams" thing. Other farmers get the quahogs to give it up by bathing them in a shot of warm water.

Fong, a biology professor, was undaunted. He had other research to do. Now, he feeds Viagra to snails.

"If we know what makes snails feel virile, then we can mess that up and make them reproduce less," Fong explained.

Dosing invertebrates with popular pharmaceuticals may seem wacky, but groundbreaking science often does. Even the light bulb was, at one time, just a filament of Tom Edison's imagination. Feeding Viagra to snails today could lead to glorious, snail-free gardens tomorrow.

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November is "Thank You, Research" month in New Jersey. Fong's happy-clam experiment, funded in part by the New Jersey Marine Sciences Consortium, is the latest installment in a long list of innovative scientific inquiry associated with the state.

It is also a shining example of how New Jersey has become a simmering cauldron of offbeat scientific investigation.

Here in the land of Edison and Albert Einstein, of Bell Labs and pharmaceutical giants searching for the next medical miracle, is a researcher who brought the world a cure for intestinal wind. The state was host to a field test for tobacco plants that suck toxic mercury out of the ground. And it is the home of a psychologist who discovered that those who commit suicide are more likely to have low cholesterol.

For his clams-on-Prozac study, Fong was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize, or "Ig," as insiders call it.

Fong's work shows the benefits of curiosity, said Marc Abrahams, author of "The Ig Nobel Prizes: The Annals of Improbable Research," a new book that chronicles 13 years of the awards bestowed upon researchers who are, to put it politely, way ahead of their time. The Igs are handed out every fall in Cambridge, Mass.

"The point of this stuff is that first it makes you laugh, then it makes you think," Abrahams said.

Among other Ig winners over the years have been the Southern Baptist Church's county-by-county estimate of the number of Alabamans who will go to hell; an American study which found that listening to elevator Muzak may help prevent the common cold; an Australian survey of human belly-button lint; and a British physicist's discovery that toast often falls on the buttered side.

Another winner specializes in quantifying everyday annoyances that plague suburbanites across the metro area.

John Trinkaus, a 78-year-old emeritus business professor at Baruch College in New York, has spent 25 years turning behind-the-wheel epiphanies and supermarket ah-ha moments into academic study.

Among Trinkaus' findings:

_Only about 15 percent of shoppers observe the item limit of supermarket express lanes.

_People hate having other people's shopping lists and used circulars in their shopping carts. But instead of dumping them in the trash, they'll invariably toss them in another cart.

_Only 6 percent of drivers come to a full stop at stop signs. Women driving vans were the most egregious outlaws - they stopped only 1 percent of the time.

"It's indicative of a decay in morality," Trinkaus editorialized.

_Drivers making left-hand turns move into intersections more slowly if someone is waiting behind them.

While New Jersey's pharmaceutical industry spends multiple millions annually on research and development, Trinkaus has published more than 80 papers on a budget of absolute zero.

"The only cost is my time," he said.

Alan Kligerman, meanwhile, has been taking his research all the way to the bank.

Kligerman, who lives in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., is a corporate alchemist who spins out-of-left-field food science into gold.

He is the father of Lactaid, a constellation of products that make dairy products easier to digest. He is the moving force behind Beano, a food supplement that silences post-chili breezes.

"I was inspired by Sanka," Kligerman said from his office at AkPharma Inc., the Atlantic County company he founded. "If you get jittery and can't sleep, the only alternative before Sanka was to quit drinking coffee. Sanka took the caffeine out, so you could keep enjoying coffee."

Likewise, dairy products were taboo for the lactose intolerant - until Lactaid.

As for Beano, Kligerman said, "Sure, the `Blazing Saddles' jokes get made, but to some people it's no joke."

Beano and Lactaid were sold to major companies. Lactaid milk alone now logs some $110 million in annual sales.

Kligerman's newest product, and the one dearest to his heartburn, is Prelief, a patented mineral - calcium glycerophosphate - that takes the acid out of such foods as tomato sauce, wine and orange juice.

Prelief was discovered by accident, Kligerman said. Like Christopher Columbus, who blundered into the New World, Kligerman was testing ways to add calcium to coffee - the drinking of which steals calcium from the human body - when he happened upon something niftier.

"The calcium glycerophosphate made for a much mellower, more delicious cup," Kligerman said.

Kligerman had taken Sanka one step further. With Prelief, he's gelded the wild java.

Dr. Richard B. Meagher, meanwhile, hopes to tame another, even wilder beast - mercury contamination in soil.

Mercury damages the nervous system. It taints hundreds of sites nationwide. And it's prohibitively expensive to get rid of. Meagher and his colleagues at the University of Georgia genetically modified tobacco plants to make them suck mercury out of the ground.

Getting plants to do the dirty work of toxic cleanup is a process called phytoremediation. Problem is, mercury kills plants. So Meagher took a gene from E. coli, a mercury-resistant bacterium, and implanted it in lab-grown tobacco.

New Jersey, home to the most Superfund sites in the country, was chosen as the place to field-test the thirsty tobacco. (Meagher won't say exactly where - his corporate client prefers things hush-hush.)

The idea was that the plants would "sequester" mercury, then be harvested and incinerated, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars that otherwise would be spent excavating the sites and carting the dirt to a special chemical landfill.

"You have to put the mercury where it won't get into the food chain or the water supply," Meagher said.

The only hitch: Tobacco plants are teensy. They couldn't slurp enough mercury to make the project worthwhile.

Meagher went back to the drawing board. He's now testing the same gene-splicing procedure with cottonwood trees, hoping that the trees' bigger root systems will absorb more mercury.

While such relentless trial and error calls for a special type of optimism, it might be difficult to marshal such a sunny attitude when the research concerns suicide.

But every field has its expert, and suicide has David Lester of Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. He has written 50 books and published more than 1,000 journal papers on that dismal subject.

As you might imagine, Lester has contemplated suicide from myriad angles. He has examined suicide in more than two dozen countries, among populations of people as diverse - and curious - as former Major League baseball players, cops, cultists, the Yoruba and Xhosa people of Africa, the infertile, writers, the foreign-born, prison inmates, religious fundamentalists, and the academically successful. He has studied bridge-jumping, drowning, overdosing, shooting, asphyxiation, subway leaping, and suicide in wide-open places.

There are many highlights in Lester's four-decade career, but three of his conclusions stand out:

_Springtime suicide rates in the United States in 1980 had little to do with the latitude or longitude of the state capitals in which the suicides took place.

_People with low cholesterol are more likely to kill themselves, and are more likely to use violent methods.

_In his latest publication, Lester tackled the question: Do male and female suicides jump from different heights? For an answer, pick up the June 2003 issue of "Perceptual and Motor Skills," because Lester refused to be interviewed.

By contrast, Richard C. Hoagland won't pipe down about his life's work - finding out once and for all if there is, or ever has been, intelligent life on Mars.

He thinks there is. And more.

Before the "Beam me up, Scotty" quips begin in earnest, hear him out. The Morristown, N.J., native is a former NASA consultant who couldn't ignore photos brought back by the Viking mission to the fourth rock from the Sun in 1976. There seemed to be pyramids and a mile-long half-feline, half-human face. In fact, mathematically, their layout on the Martian surface was uncannily similar to that of the pyramids and Sphinx at Giza.

In 1996, Hoagland wrote a book about it: "The Monuments of Mars: A City on the Edge of Forever." It was the result of years of poring over Mars photos and analyzing data with teams of researchers.

"There is something profound waiting for us on Mars," Hoagland said in an interview. "The hardest thing the last 20 years is waiting for us to muster the political will to send people to Mars to find out what it is."

Hoagland believes that a superior civilization is responsible for the monument, and that in Mars' oxygen-free atmosphere, libraries of incalculably important knowledge may be preserved underground. And that's not all. Because the Sphinxlike monument appears to have a human face, Hoagland says he's not sure Martian civilization is necessarily an alien one.

"There is the possibility that humans were already there, that our 6,000-year history is just a footnote," Hoagland said. "That's the real staggering thing."

Hoagland hopes President Bush will soon begin manned missions to Mars.

"If the American people don't want to go to Mars and find out what's there," he said, "we're never going to know."

From Mars, we go to Venus.

Eight years ago, a Boston University research team decided to find out whether female sexual problems went beyond a psychological basis. The group included Dr. Hossein Sadeghi-Nejad, a urologist now with Hackensack University Medical Center and the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey.

They took smooth muscle tissue from a rabbit's clitoris and used it to develop a cell culture in a lab dish.

To the lay person, that may sound like a tasteless med school prank. To the growing community of scientists concerned with sexual dysfunction, it was a breakthrough - and another example of something that seems wacky on the surface yielding a serious scientific advance.

"We were the very first to establish that female genital tissue was made of the same kind of cells as male genital tissue," Sadeghi-Nejad said.

Researchers had already established a physiological basis for male sexual failure. Sadeghi-Nejad and his colleagues proved that sexual problems weren't just in women's minds.

That discovery opened up a whole new world for possible pharmaceutical treatments for sexual dysfunction, he said.

It led directly to the development of drugs such as Viagra.

Which, as we know, makes snails virile.

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