From Japan Today, 9/30/11:
A team of Japanese scientists who invented a fire alarm that smells like wasabi were among the winners of this year’s Ig Nobel prizes that were handed out for head-scratching scientific discoveries Thursday at Harvard University.
The Japanese team won the chemistry prize for the 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.
The 21st annual awards sponsored by the Annals of Improbable Research were handed out by real Nobel laureates, and featured the usual doses of silliness, including a mini-opera about the chemistry in a coffee shop and the ritual launching of paper airplanes.
We have been talking in class about how vision is the primary sense in ethnography - fieldwork is going to see it for yourself. And how often do we read about how something smelled, tasted and/or felt? Not often. And the scratch and sniff ethnography idea hasn't seemed to catch on yet. Anthropology is a science, so can this dominance of the sense of vision appear in other scientific fields? Does a chemistry project based upon the sense of smell seem improbable because it doesn't use the dominant trope of vision?
Does a project for an emergency alarm for a specific and statistically small group make it improbable? I remember seeing a report on NHK Sign Language News several years ago about this project and how a pungent smell really can wake a deaf (or hearing) person. I don't think any of my deaf friends have such a device. Like other devices or services catered to the deaf exclusively, the market doesn't seem big enough for success. Deaf people benefit from such things geared at wider markets such as video phones and Skype. Why can't hearing people benefit from products designed for the deaf? Is it such a stretch to associate the smell of wasabi with fire?
Read the whole article and reader comments at Japan Today:
UPDATE: A more majime version of the story appears from Kyodo News:
Japanese team wins Ig Nobel award for 'wasabi alarm'
A group of Japanese researchers won the spoof Ig Nobel chemistry prize on Thursday for developing a smoke detecting alarm that sprays a wasabi scent.
''We invented the wasabi fire alarm to wake up people with hearing disabilities in case of emergency,'' Makoto Imai, assistant professor at Shiga University of Medical Science, told Kyodo News prior to the ceremony at Harvard University, adding that the device is a ''life-saver.''
The 21st annual event to award the prizes, which the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research gives in 10 categories as a parody of the Nobel Prizes, was held at Harvard University's historic Sanders Theatre. It was the fifth straight year for an Ig Nobel prize to go to Japanese recipients.
Imai and his six teammates were honored for discovering the ''ideal density of airborne wasabi'' to awaken sleepers in a crisis, according to the magazine.
Accepting the prize, Imai told the enthusiastic crowd of around 1,200 about the hard work behind the gadget, thanking research subjects who ''choked on the pungent smell'' while they slept in examination rooms.
The seven-member team began their project in 2000 to benefit people who could not hear traditional fire warning systems, which rely on loud sounds, by instead using the sense of smell.
Their experiments focused on the source of the overpowering wasabi odor, allyl mustard oil, and the amount that can arouse a person without impacting health.
Seems Inc. in Tokyo and Kobe-based Air Water Safety Service Inc. used the research for an alarm that alerts the user of danger by emitting the powerful scent until ''a person is unable to tolerate'' the odor, according to the U.S. patent filed in February 2009.
Available since April 2009, the alarm sells for about $600, though a more economic model may be on the market in one to two years, according to the team.