BOSTON – The sound sets teeth on edge, makes skin crawl and sends a shiver down the spine. Just thinking about it gives some people the heebie-jeebies.
But what is it about the sound of fingernails scratching on a blackboard that elicits such a universal reaction?
Randolph Blake and two colleagues think they know – the sound’s frequency level.
Their research has earned them an Ig Nobel, the annual awards given at Harvard University by Annals of Improbable Research magazine for weird, wacky and sometimes worthless scientific research.
This year’s winners honored – or maybe dishonored – at a raucous ceremony Thursday at Harvard’s inappropriately opulent Sanders Theater include a doctor who put his finger on a cure for hiccups; two men who think there is something to the old adage that feet smell like cheese; and researchers who discovered that dung beetles won’t tuck in to just any old pile of … well, dung.
What started as a small event in 1991 to honor obscure and humorous scientific achievements has grown into an international happening, with some of this year’s winners traveling from Australia, Kuwait and France. The awards are given out by real Nobel laureates, including Harvard physics professor Roy Glauber, who stays behind afterward to sweep up.
The nails on a blackboard research was part of a bigger, legitimate project, said Blake, a Vanderbilt University psychology professor who specializes in vision. He, along with Dr. D. Lynn Halpern and James Hillenbrand, did the research two decades ago while at Northwestern University.