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Ig Nobel awards go to knuckle-cracker, tequila chemists, other laureates

A Thousand Oaks doctor testing an arthritis link by cracking his knuckles for 60 years is among the winners of the mock Nobel Prizes.

October 02, 2009|Rosie Mestel

A man who cracked the knuckles of one hand -- but not the other -- for six decades, scientists who figured out why pregnant women don't topple over and chemists who made diamonds from tequila were honored Thursday at the annual Ig Nobel prize ceremony -- a tongue-in-cheek parody of the famous and august Nobels, which are due to be announced next week.

Produced by a science humor magazine, the Annals of Improbable Research, the event was celebrated at a raucous event at Harvard University, during which each recipient received his or her prize from a genuine Nobel laureate.

As an added treat this year -- the 19th Ig Nobel -- each awardee also received a brassiere that can quickly convert into a pair of gas masks if required, an invention of the 2009 winner of the public health prize.

Dr. Donald L. Unger, 83, a Thousand Oaks allergist, was this year's medicine awardee. He traveled with his wife to Harvard to pick up his prize for his work on knuckle-cracking.

Unger's investigation, which has lasted more than 60 years, was inspired by childhood warnings he'd gotten from his mother that his habit of cracking his knuckles would lead to arthritis. To test this, since his teens he has been cracking the knuckles of his left hand at least twice daily but has never cracked the knuckles of his right hand (so it could serve as a control in the experiment).

"I'm looking at my fingers, and there is not the slightest sign of arthritis in either hand," said Unger, who in 1998 published his findings (conducted, he stressed, with no public funds) in the journal Arthritis and Rheumatism.

Unger added that he has published scores of research papers in his profession as an allergist but none of those garnered him as much fame as the knuckle-cracking work.

"I've gotten a lot of awards and degrees, and all of a sudden I get my 15 minutes of fame out of this stupidity," he said. "But I'm happy to get any award -- I've got a blank space on my wall."

The 10 prizes included the 2009 Ig Nobel Peace Prize, given to Swiss scientists who investigated -- using human cadavers, among other approaches -- whether it is safer to be hit over the head with a full beer bottle than an empty one.

And the veterinary medicine prize went to British researchers for their discovery that cows given names produce more milk than unnamed cows.

Awardees in past years have included:

* Australian researchers for their paper titled "An Analysis of the Forces Required to Drag Sheep over Various Surfaces." They found, among other things, that it is easier to drag a sheep down a slope than up a slope.

* An investigator at City University of New York who published more than 80 articles on human habits such as what people think of Brussels sprouts, whether they wear baseball caps with the bills at the front or rear, and obedience to the "15 items or less" signs at supermarket checkout lines.

* Swedish scientists who found that "Chickens Prefer Beautiful Humans."

* South African inventors of a car security system that set off flamethrowers when a car was disturbed -- and that was banned as soon as it went on sale.

* Researchers who patented a device to make childbirth easier via centrifugal force: a large, circular table to be rotated at high speed.

The 2009 Ig Nobel prize ceremony can be viewed at www.improbable.com "> www.improbable.com .

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rosie.mestel@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Ig Nobel honorees

The 2009 winners were awarded at Harvard University by the Annals of Improbable Research magazine:

Veterinary medicine: Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson for showing that cows with names give more milk than unnamed cows.

Peace: Stephan Bolliger, Steffen Ross, Lars Oesterhelweg, Michael Thali and Beat Kneubuehl for investigating whether it is better to be struck over the head with a full beer bottle or with an empty beer bottle.

Economics: Executives of four Icelandic banks for showing how tiny banks can become huge banks, and then become tiny banks again.

Chemistry: Javier Morales, Miguel Apatiga and Victor Castano for creating diamonds out of tequila.

Medicine: Donald Unger for cracking just the knuckles on his left hand for 60 years to see whether knuckle-cracking contributes to arthritis.

Physics: Katherine Whitcome, Liza Shapiro and Daniel Lieberman for figuring out why pregnant women don't tip over.

Literature: The Irish national police for issuing 50 tickets to one Prawo Jazdy, which in Polish means "driver's license."

Public health: Elena Bodnar, Raphael Lee and Sandra Marijan for inventing a brassiere that can be converted into a pair of gas masks.

Mathematics: Gideon Gono and the Zimbabwean Reserve Bank for printing bank notes in denominations from 1 cent to $100 trillion.

Biology: Fumiaki Taguchi, Song Guofu and Zhang Guanglei for demonstrating that bacteria in panda poop can help reduce kitchen waste by 90%.

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Source: Annals of Improbable Research

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