Friday, October 06, 2006

Why Woodpeckers Don't Get Headaches: And Other (Ig)Nobel Prize Winning Discoveries

Science's wackiest awards have just been presented again. And once more the Ig Nobel prizes have thrown up a hilarious collection of strange but true discoveries from the (lunatic?) fringe of scientific research. The awards, given out by the Journal of Improbable Research each year, reward work that Ig Nobel founder Marc Abrahams says "first makes you laugh, then makes you think". This year's winners include a team who investigated the eating habits of a species of dung beetle - it turns out they are very finicky about their faeces - and a Welshman who exploited people's inability to hear high-frequency sound as they get older to create a high-pitched alarm that can clear the streets of teenagers. Our favourite award, however, went to Ivan Schwab of the University of California, Davis, who received the Ig Nobel ornithology prize for a paper that explains why woodpeckers don't get headaches. After years of research and agonising, Davis discovered that muscles around a woodpecker's sensitive brain tissues are arranged in such a way that they act like a shock absorber. This leaves woodpeckers free to headbang away to their hearts content. As Dr Abrahams put it in his speech at the awards, held at Harvard last night, his dedication to solving this vexing problem "will give new meaning to the old phrase, to rack your brains." A list of the Ig Nobel prize-winners in full is here while this Guardian report looks at the awards in more entertaining detail.

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