October 15, 1998
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Ig Nobels Laugh at Science

Clams on Prozac, an opera about duct tape, sinking telephone booths, a blitz of paper planes, and then the jokes began.

By William J. Cromie

Gazette Staff

No one was surprised when the 1998 Ig Nobel Peace Prize went to Prime Minister Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee of India and his "colleague" Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan for their "aggressively peaceful explosions of atomic bombs." The award, after all, was presented at the Eight First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony held in Sanders Theatre on Oct. 8.

The audience did register surprise, however, when the Ig Nobel Prize for Biology when to Peter Fong of Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania for depressing experiments in which he and his colleagues used Prozac to enhance the reproductive capacity of clams.

The audience was also shocked by the announcement that two Canadians, Jerald Bain and Kerry Siminoski, copped the Statistics Prize for their measured work on "The Relationship Among Height, Penile Length, and Foot Size." When the audience laughed self-consciously, Bain (who has very small feet) protested: "This is an important study and I hope you take it seriously."

Fong's research was actually published in the Journal of Experimental Zoology (vol. 280, 1998) and Bain's in the Annals of Sex Research (vol. 6, no. 3, 1993). They nicely exemplify the reason for which Ig Nobel Prizes were created: to award achievements that "cannot or should not be reproduced."

The annual ceremony, which includes a handful of real Nobel Prize winners, is one of the few events where scientists laugh at themselves (at least in public).


Undignified Parodies

The ceremony was held in richly paneled Sanders Theatre, where audiences usually listen (or doze off) to speeches by dignitaries from Harvard and other places. But there the resemblance to the real thing ends. Instead of applauding the appearance of the King and Queen of Sweden, a rowdy audience whoops and shouts at the Queen and King of Swedish Meatballs.

The show begins with a parade of various dignitaries, "ignitaries," authority figures, and unlikely delegations. The Harvard Band marched through the theater playing "10,000 Men of Harvard." The band was followed by representatives of Non-Extremists for Moderate Change, the Society for Creative Anachronism, and the Museum of Bad Art.

Audience members were given sheets of paper and encouraged to make paper airplanes to throw at the dignitaries, ignitaries, and delegates, who tossed them back. As the night wore on, making paper planes grew tiring, so people just wadded up the sheets and flung them at each other.

Every Ig Nobel ceremony boasts a theme, although no one is sure why. This year it was duct tape. There was a duct-tape fashion show wherein all garments were made of the sticky stuff. There was a three-act mini-opera called La Forze del Duct Tape.

In the last act, the "hero" of the opera gets wrapped in duct tape by four Nobel Prize winners: Sheldon Glashow, a physics laureate who wore his medal to the ceremony; Dudley Herschbach, Baird Professor of Science, who also played drums; chemist William Lipscomb, who played the clarinet; and Richard Roberts, winner of a Noble Prize in Medicine in 1993. who was auctioned off as a door prize. All four put on oversized shoes for the presentation of the Ig Nobel in statistics.

All roads to humor these days go through the White House, and the sponsors of the show could not resist paving the road with duct tape. Flyers announced "New and Improved Presidential Duct Tape, Especially Engineered and Formulated to Keep Presidential Trousers On, Presidential Flies Closed, and Presidential Interns' Mouths Shut."

Unsavory Awards

Naturally, duct tape was part of the Ig Nobel Prizes themselves. Trophies consisted of a fat roll along with a plastic duck, both mounted on a cheap wooden stand.

Winners also received a plastic bag containing a roll of Duck brand duct tape and some other junk.

Ten such prizes were awarded. The Prize for Safety Engineering went to Troy Hurtubise of North Bay, Ontario, for developing and personally testing a suit of armor he claims will protect people against grizzly bears. He appeared with one of the cumbersome-looking red-and-white suits, which contain 7,600 feet of duct tape.

The Chemistry Prize was awarded to Jacques Benveniste, a Frenchman who believes that water has memory. He won the 1991 Chemistry Ig Nobel for that theory. Last week, he became the first person in history to win a second Ig Nobel for "discovering" that biological information in water memory can be transmitted over telephone lines and the Internet. These claims were met with sounds of toilets flushing and slides of a telephone booth that is sinking while a man inside tries to make a call.

The much sought-after Prize for Science Education was presented to Dolores Krieger, professor emerita at New York University, for her studies of therapeutic touch. Nurses treat patients by passing their hands though energy fields that surround their bodies (the patients' bodies). There is no actual touching; the healing comes from manipulating the energy field.

Marc Abrahams, the master of ceremonies announced that Dr. Krieger "could not, or would not, be with us tonight." The prize was accepted by 11-year-old Emily Rosa, who did an experiment that showed such fields do not exist. Emily did the debunking when she was 9 years old. She, her mother, Linda, and two collaborators published their results in the April 1, 1998, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (vol. 279, no. 13, pp. 1005-10).

The audience shouted, stamped their feet, and gave Emily a standing ovation.

The coveted Ig Nobel Prize in Physics went to Deepak Chopra of the Center for Well Being in La Jolla, Calif., for "his unique interpretation of quantum physics as it applies to life, liberty, and the pursuit of economic happiness." Sheldon Glashow, who won a real Nobel Prize for physics in 1979 and who teaches quantum physics at Harvard, made some unflattering comments about Chopra's claims.

Richard Seed of Chicago announced earlier this year that he would begin experiments that would lead to the cloning of humans, starting with himself. As that could be quite profitable (a couple in Texas has give researchers $2.3 million to clone their dog), Seed easily won the Ig Noble Prize in Economics

"Dr. Seed could not join use tonight," Abrahams announced. "Someone is paying him a lot of money to give a speech in Ireland."

The Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine went to "patient Y" and his doctors at Royal Gwent Hospital in Newport, Wales, for their odious report, "A Man Who Pricked His Finger and Smelled Putrid for 5 years." A cousin of one of the doctors accepted the award and announced that the story has a happy ending. The patient no longer smells. No other details were given.

Last and least came the Literature Prize. It went to Mara Sidoli who wrote in the Journal of Analytic Psychology (vol. 41, no. 2, 1996) about "Farting as a Defence Against Unspeakable Dread."

In the event readers wish to assess praise or blame for the Prize show, it was sponsored by Annals of Improbable Research, also known as AIR or "the MAD magazine of Science." Marc Abrahams is editor of AIR.

Cosponsors include the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association, the Harvard Computer Society, and Manco, proud suppliers of Duck Tape.

For more details, see http://www.improbable.com.


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College