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Ig Nobel prizes cause a stink

Ig Nobel prize winners this year include a team who created a fire alarm using the smell of wasabi, research on the effects of withholding urine, and others. The light-hearted science prizes are funny, but also aim to make people think.

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Zuokas was coy when asked whether the car-crushing was a stunt — the well-dressed owner did not appear to be too angry — but said the plan appears to have worked. The city has returned to what the mayor calls "more standard and boring" means of controlling parking scofflaws: issuing tickets and towing vehicles.

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But he warns he has the tank on standby.

The chemistry prize went to Japanese researchers who invented a fire alarm that emits the pungent odor of wasabi, the sinus-clearing green paste served with sushi.

"Wasabi odor is useful as a fire alarm to deaf people who failed to wake up with a conventional mode such as sound, vibration or flashing light," said Makoto Imai, professor of psychiatry at Shiga University of Medical Science.

The key is allyl isothiocyanate, the compound in wasabi that gives out its distinctive smell and can be detected even during sleep.

The team settled on wasabi after trying about 100 odors, including rotten eggs.

Karl Teigen's research, which won him the psychology prize, perhaps best embodies the spirit of the Ig Nobels. His study on why people sigh has no practical applications as far as he can determine. He and his students decided to study sighing simply because they found no one else had.

"People think that others' sighs chiefly express sadness and sorrow, but that their own sighs are more often due to resignation and giving up," said Teigen, a psychology professor at the University of Oslo in Norway. "We studied the giving up aspect experimentally by giving people puzzles that looked simple, but they could not solve. And they sighed. We think they sighed because they had to give up a hypothesis, an idea, a hope, or an attempt — and perhaps be ready for a new one."

Most winners were delighted to take home the prize.

"It certainly caught me off guard," said Snyder, the Brown professor. "But at heart I am a teacher, and I am concerned that scientific literacy in this country is on the decline. The Ig Nobels show that science isn't always dry and technical, and can be fun."

Teigen played on the Ig Nobels' own catchphrase to describe his feelings. "Ig Nobel prizes are assumed to make people laugh and then think — and I would add: then sigh."

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