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Science prize celebrates fish flatulence, hula hoops

Winners of "Ig Nobel" Prize say herring "talk" via flatulence. But wouldn't saying "excuse me" lock them into a never-ending cycle?

Speak to me not in the language of the herring.

That's assuming that the Scottish Association for Marine Science is correct in its conclusion that the tiny fish communicate via strategic gas releases, one of the scientific breakthroughs recognized in the .

The awards, meant to recognize the year's most dubious achievements in science, were handed out Thursday night in a mock-gala ceremony at Harvard University. "Every Ig Nobel Prize winner has done something that first makes people laugh, then makes them think," according to the introduction by the editors of the Annals of Improbable Research, which has been presenting the annual honors since 1991.

Besides fish flatulence (which adds a whole new meaning to the phrase "You smelt it, you dealt it"), winning research topics this year included the physics of hula hoop manipulation and the suicidal effect of country music. Some highlights:

• The Scottish Association for Marine Science and Sweden's National Board of Fisheries concluded in separate studies that herring communicate through a process politely described as "bubble release" or "burst pulse sounds." Annals editors helpfully translate the technique as "farting."

• Social science researchers Steven Stack of Wayne State University and Jim Gundlach of Auburn University concluded in a joint study that listening to country music makes people more prone to committing suicide. "We contend that the themes found in country music foster a suicidal mood among people already at risk of suicide," the researchers write in their introduction.

• Balding men beware--the comb-over is the intellectual property of Frank and Donald Smith of Orlando, Fla. The two received U.S. Patent 4,022,227 for "a method of styling hair to cover partial baldness using only the hair on a person's head. The hair styling requires dividing a person's hair into three sections and carefully folding one section over another."

• Jillian Clarke, a senior at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, concluded that the "five-second rule"--that it's OK to eat a piece of food that's fallen on the floor if it's only been there a few seconds--is probably valid. Clarke found that even in areas with heavy foot traffic, microbial populations on floors were remarkably slight. But be wary if the floor does have a crud infestation: E. coli can colonize a gummi bear in less than five seconds.

• Even relatively simply tasks capture so much of a person's attention that he or she becomes blind to surrounding events, according to Harvard psychology researchers Daniel Simons, now at the University of Illinois, and Christopher Chabris. Their study had a woman in a gorilla suit walk through a group of students who were engaged in passing a basketball back and forth.