Thursday, January 11, 2007

Anals of the Absurd

Many men were probably heartened recently by a study that concluded women who exercise by doing housework can reduce their risk of breast cancer.
That's right, guys. The research on more than 200,000 women from nine European countries found that doing household chores was far more cancer protective than playing sport. Dusting, mopping and vacuuming was also better than having a physical job.
So, all along, we weren't really being slobs. We were merely advancing the cause of women's health.
Of course, men get breast cancer too. So does that mean they should man the mop?
Good question. But an even better one is: who concocts this kind of weird research anyway? And what, if anything, does it prove?
Turns out we're not the only ones intrigued by that question.
No less than Harvard University is the site each year of the Ig Noble prizes, given for achievements that "first make people laugh, and then make them think."
According to the a scientific humor journal called the Anals of Improbable Research, examples range from the discovery that the presence of humans tends to sexually arouse ostriches, to the statement that black holes fulfill all the technical requirements to be the location of Hell.
This year's Ig Nobel winners include:
-Ivan R. Schwab, of the University of California Davis, and the late Philip R.A. May of the University of California Los Angeles, for exploring and explaining why woodpeckers don't get headaches. -Wasmia Al-Houty of Kuwait University and Faten Al-Mussalam of the Kuwait Environment Public Authority, for showing that dung beetles are finicky eaters. -Howard Stapleton of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, for inventing an electromechanical teenager repellant -- a device that makes annoying high-pitched noise designed to be audible to teenagers but not to adults; and for later using that same technology to make telephone ringtones that are audible to teenagers but probably not to their teachers.
-D. Lynn Halpern (of Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, and Brandeis University, and Northwestern University), Randolph Blake (of Vanderbilt University and Northwestern University) and James Hillenbrand (of Western Michigan University and Northwestern University) for conducting experiments to learn why people dislike the sound of fingernails scraping on a blackboard. -Nic Svenson and Piers Barnes of the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organization, for calculating the number of photographs you must take to (almost) ensure that nobody in a group photo will have their eyes closed. -And last but not least: Daniel Oppenheimer of Princeton University for his report "Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly." Fine efforts, every one. Personally, I am attracted to an award from 2005 that went to Gauri Nanda of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for inventing an alarm clock that runs away and hides, repeatedly, thus ensuring that people DO get out of bed, and thus theoretically adding many productive hours to the workday.
Or the 2004 award nabbed by Steven Stack of Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan, and James Gundlach of Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama, for their published report "The Effect of Country Music on Suicide."
Compared to these studies, the breast cancer/housework research ranks alongside Sir Isaac Newton's three laws of motion.

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