Pop Culture

The world’s wackiest scientific research

Everyone knows about the Nobel Prizes, those prestigious awards that recognize the world’s most talented and innovative minds. Unfortunately, not all of the hopeful thinkers and academics around the globe can become Nobel Laureates, but some are lucky enough to win the esteemed Ig Nobel Prize instead. And now, their unbelievable accomplishments are documented by Marc Abrahams in a new book titled, “The Ig Nobel Prizes: The Annals of Improbable Research.” Drawn from the world’s wackiest actual scientific research, “The Ig Nobel Prizes” demonstrates the extreme measures people will take in the quest for knowledge. Abrahams discusses the book on “Today.” Here's an excerpt:

WHAT’S AN IG?

Some people covet it, others flee from it. Some see it as a hallmark of civilization, others as a scuff mark. Some laugh with it, others laugh at it. Many praise it, a few condemn it, others are just mystified. And many people are madly in love with it.

It is the Ig Nobel Prize.

Everything that has won an Ig Nobel Prize shares this quality: it first makes people LAUGH, then makes them THINK. What people think is up to them.

The winners are a varied lot. Doesn’t matter if what they’ve done is naughty or nice, important or inconsequential, intelligent or idiotic, famous or forgotten. If they have done something that first makes people LAUGH, then makes them THINK, that’s all it takes.

The winners and their achievements are akin to what Sherlock Holmes craved in his famous collection of newspaper clippings:

“He took down the great book in which, day by day, he filed the agony columns of the various London journals. ‘Dear me!’ said he, turning over the pages, ‘what a chorus of groans, cries, and bleatings! What a rag-bag of singular happenings! But surely the most valuable hunting-ground that ever was given to a student of the unusual!’ ”

But Sherlock Holmes was of course fictional. The Ig Nobel Prize winners are real. Each year, ten Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded to people whose achievements “cannot or should not be reproduced.” The “Igs” (as they are known) honor people who have done remarkably goofy things — some admirable, some perhaps otherwise.

These things can be difficult to believe. That is why the Ig Nobel Board of Governors publishes information that you can use to verify and savor the details.

That is also why the winners are invited to come to the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, which is held each October at Harvard University. The winners must travel at their own expense, and for many it is apparently worth the cost. A friendly, standing-room-only audience of 1,200 welcomes them with warm wild applause, and paper airplanes.

In a unique ritual, genuine Nobel Laureates physically hand the Ig Nobel Prizes to the new Ig Nobel Prize winners. Each time this occurs, it is a magical instant — at that moment it feels as if the universe has two opposite ends, and these two opposite ends have somehow managed to meet and touch. Nobel Laureate and Ig Nobel Laureate look each other in the eye, each filled with gleeful wonder.

HOW IT BEGAN, BRIEFLY

The Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony was born not long after I unexpectedly became the editor of a magazine called The Journal of Irreproducible Results. The Journal was started in 1955 by Alex Kohn and Harry Lipkin, two eminent and very funny scientists in Israel, but it eventually fell into other hands and withered to near-extinction. In 1990, I mailed off some articles to see whether this journal (which I had never seen) still existed, and if so whether it might print them. Several weeks later came a telephone message from a man who said he was the publisher, that he’d gotten the articles, and would I be the magazine’s editor.

As the editor of a science magazine, even a funny one, I was besieged by people who wanted my help in winning a Nobel Prize. I always explained that I had no influence on these matters, but they invariably told me in great detail what they’d done and why they deserved a prize. In some cases, they were right. They deserved a prize, but not a Nobel Prize.

And so, together with everyone I could talk into helping out, I started the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony. Alex Kohn suggested naming it after the “Ignoble Prize,” a fictional award he and Harry Lipkin had described years before.

We held the first Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony in October 1991.

The publishers of that magazine, by the way, had a corporate shuffle, and made it clear that a science humor magazine was no longer for them. Rather than watch it go down the tubes, we all left and immediately started a new magazine, the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR). I have fond memories of the day when four Nobel Laureates each separately informed me, with appropriate cackles, that I am an AIRhead. AIR is the proud home base of the Ig.

It cannot be overstated that the Ig Nobel Prize winners and their accomplishments are real.

At the conclusion of one Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, a female journalist from England climbed onto the stage and accosted a Nobel Laureate, who had just helped hand out the awards.

“This was your first Ig, wasn’t it?” she asked the distinguished scientist. “Did you enjoy it?” “Oh, yes,” he said, eyes crinkling in delight. “Those people were so funny! Can you imagine if they’d really done those things?”

The reporter gave a low chuckle. “They did do those things.”

The Nobel Laureate was silent for a moment. Then he, too, gave a low chuckle. And almost every year since, he has returned to the ceremony to shake hands with each new crop of Ig Nobel Prize winners.

HOW THE WINNERS ARE CHOSEN

Who chooses the winners? The Ig Nobel Board of Governors. Who are the Ig Nobel Board of Governors? Ah. The group comprises the editors of the Annals of Improbable Research (the science humor magazine I edit), and a considerable number of scientists (including, yes, several Nobel Laureates), journalists, and others in a variety of fields in a variety of countries. The group never meets at a single gathering. We keep no records of who sent in nominations or, for that matter, of who exactly is on the committee. There is a tradition that for the final decision, we grab some passerby from the street, to add a little balance.

Where do the nominations come from? Anywhere. Everywhere. Anyone can nominate anyone for an Ig Nobel Prize, and pretty much anyone does. We receive several thousand nominations each year, among them quite a few persons nominating themselves (to date, only one Prize has ever been awarded to a self-nominee-the Norwegian team of Barheim and Sandvik, who researched the effects of ale, garlic, and sour cream on the appetite of leeches).

Generally, those who are selected can turn down the Prize if they truly believe it might cause them professional difficulties with bosses, governments, or the like. But in the twelve years that Prizes have been given, only a small handful have declined. In recent years, most winners have chosen to attend the ceremony or, when finances or other circumstances made that difficult, at least send an acceptance speech.

The winners who come to collect their Prizes always receive a warm welcome. If someone is sporting enough to come celebrate their goofy achievement in public, the audience and the organizers always give them an appreciative, if chuckling, tip of the cap.

THE CEREMONY

If you win an Ig Nobel Prize, the best part is that you get to star in the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, and be the upside-down-buttered toast of the town.

The ceremony began as something giddy in the dead of night, with 350 people crammed inside a museum at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That first year, 1991, we invited four Nobel Laureates to come help hand out the Prizes. All four showed up, wearing Groucho glasses, sashes, fezzes, and other stylishly sportive attire. The public was invited to attend, and almost instantly snapped up all the tickets. Reporters came, too, and on that evening everyone had the gleeful feeling of sneaking something really different into being. The emphasis here is on the word “sneak,” because we all felt as though sooner or later some authority figure would rush in and tell us to stop this nonsense and go home. But no one did, and it was a wild success, and the next year we had to move it to the largest meeting place at MIT.

Thereafter, nominations came in a never-ending flood, and every year, spectators, winners, and Nobel Laureates came from great distances to take part in the ceremony.

After the Fourth First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony in 1994, a dyspeptic MIT administrator tried to ban the event. Puzzled but almost amused, the Ig Nobel Board of Governors simply moved everything two miles up the road, where it now has a permanent home at Sanders Theatre, Harvard University’s oldest, largest, and most stately meeting place. Several Harvard student groups cosponsor the event together with the Annals of Improbable Research. Many Harvard and MIT faculty members, students, and administrators, and many other people as well, are part of what is now a year-round, all-volunteer organizing effort.

The ceremony itself has grown ever more complex, a jaunty meld of every dignified convention with its every off-balance antidote, heaped high with essence of Academy Awards, coronation, circus, football game, opera, booby hatch, laboratory accident, and the old Broadway show Hellzapoppin. Each year more goodies are jammed around, between, and atop the awarding of the ten new Ig Nobel Prizes. My role as master of ceremonies has been likened to that of Kermit the Frog, trying desperately to keep some thread of calm and dignity in a theater filled with scintillant lunatics, each swinging full tilt through his or her own independent universe.

A tradition sprang up in about the second year, whereby the audience members — all 1,200 of them — spend the entire evening wafting paper airplanes at the stage, and the people on stage spend the evening wafting them right back. The volume of paper dropping onto the stage is so great that we detail two people to constantly sweep away detritus; without them it would be nigh impossible to get about the stage.

The evening begins with the traditional Welcome, Welcome speech, delivered by an elderly matriarch and comprising in its entirety the statement, “Welcome, welcome.” There is a grand and motley entrance parade of audience delegations such as the Museum of Bad Art; Lawyers For and Against Complexity; the Society for the Preservation of Slide Rules; the Junior Scientists’ Club (all of whose members are about seven years old); Fruitcakes for a Better Tomorrow; the Society of Bearded Men; the Harvard Bureaucracy Club; Grannies Against Gravity; and the protest group Non-Extremists for Moderate Change in Finland.

At some point in the evening comes the Win-a-Date-with-a-Nobel-Laureate Contest, in which one lucky audience member wins a date with a Nobel Laureate.

The 1994 ceremony included the world premiere and only performance of The Interpretive Dance of the Electrons, a ballet performed by the Nicola Hawkins Dance Company and co-starring Nobel Laureates Richard Roberts, Dudley Herschbach, and William Lipscomb.

Every year since 1996 we have written a mini-opera that was then performed by professional opera singers and several Nobel Laureates. The key to making these operas work is to cast them with a mix of performers, all of whom are either (a) extremely skilled and talented or (b) endearingly game. The Cockroach Opera was our first. Later years saw the premieres of Il Kaboom Grosso (about the Big Bang, with a denouement featuring five Nobel Laureates as subatomic particles), The Seedy Opera (starring five tenors playing the role of Ig Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Seed, the man who plans to clone himself), The Jargon Opera, and other musical delights.

Each year’s ceremony also includes some special event in which celebrities from the worlds of science, literature, and art get to show off unexpected talents.

The Heisenberg Certainty Lectures (named after the famous Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which was named after Nobel Laureate Wehrner Heisenberg) have given many renowned scientists, university presidents, actors, politicians, and musicians the opportunity to lecture the audience on any topic they wished, with no restrictions save one. Each Heisenberg Lecturer was strictly limited to 30 seconds, with the time limit enforced by a professional baseball umpire. Anyone who exceeded the time limit was thrown off the stage. This proved popular with the audience.

One year, a collection of celebrated thinkers engaged in a contest to determine which of them is the world’s smartest person. This was decided in a series of one-on-one, 30- second-long debates in which both debaters had to talk at the same time. Here, too, our referee, Mr. John Barrett, enforced the time limit.

At both the Sixth and Seventh First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremonies, we auctioned off plaster casts of the (left) feet of Nobel Laureates. The proceeds were donated to the science programs of local schools.

The Eleventh First Annual Ceremony culminated in a wedding — a genuine wedding — of two scientists. The wedding ceremony was 60 seconds long, with 1,200 guests, including four teary-eyed Nobel Laureates and 40 people wearing Josef Stalin masks (it’s a long story), the whole thing televised live on the Internet. Ig Nobel Prize winner Buck Weimer, the inventor of airtight underwear with a replaceable charcoal filter that removes bad-smelling gases before they can escape, presented the newlyweds with pairs of the underwear and instructed them on its use. Late that night, as the bride’s mother was leaving Sanders Theatre, she beamingly told everyone that “This wasn’t exactly what I would have planned for my daughter . . . but it was even better.”

Every year, with so much going on during the ceremony, and with so many people having to give speeches, we faced a severe problem: how to graciously stop anyone who couldn’t or wouldn’t keep it brief. Our success with the 30-second-long Heisenberg Certainty Lectures eventually led us to an overall solution, and in 1999 we introduced a great technical innovation called “Miss Sweetie Poo.”

Miss Sweetie Poo is an exceptionally cute eight-year-old girl. Whenever Miss Sweetie Poo feels that a speaker has exceeded his or her allotted time, she walks up to the lectern, looks up at the speaker, and says, “Please stop. I’m bored. Please stop. I’m bored. Please stop. I’m bored.” Miss Sweetie Poo keeps saying this until the speaker gives up.

Miss Sweetie Poo is very effective. Since she has been part of the show, the ceremony has been 40% briefer than it had been before. Miss Sweetie Poo is our greatest invention. Press coverage of the Ig from virtually every country on earth has grown and grown, and we have tried to make it easy for people in distant places to get a glimpse of the ceremony. Every year since 1993, National Public Radio has broadcast the Ig across North America, and ever since the Fifth First Annual Ig, in 1995, we have telecast every ceremony live on the Internet. For several years our telecast engineer was Harvard graduate student and convicted felon Robert Tappan Morris, the man whose worm program brought down the entire Internet and made him the first celebrated cyberspace criminal. You can see video and other highlights at the Annals of Improbable Research Web site (www.improbable.com).

And you are invited to send in a nomination, should you happen to know someone deserving, for one of next year’s Ig Nobel Prizes.

CONTROVERSY

The Igs have not been without controversy. In 1995, Sir Robert May, the chief scientific advisor to the British government, asked the organizers to stop giving Ig Nobel Prizes to British scientists — even when the scientists want to receive them. May sent two angry letters to the Ig Nobel Board of Governors, and later granted interviews to the press. The reaction was not what he was expecting. Typical was the following editorial, which appeared in the October 7, 1996, issue of the British science journal Chemistry & Industry. It is reprinted here with permission from Chemistry & Industry.

We are amused.

Is Britain’s chief scientific adviser, Robert May, a pompous killjoy? In his recently publicised criticism of the IgNobel awards, a well-established spoof of the Nobel Prizes, he appears only to confirm that the British scientific establishment takes itself far too seriously.

In an interview with the journal Nature, May warns that the IgNobels risk bringing ‘genuine’ scientific projects into counter-productive ridicule. They should focus on anti-science and pseudo-science, he suggests, ‘while leaving serious scientists to get on with their work.’ His pique stems from embarrassing media coverage given to UK food scientists after an award last year for their research on soggy cereal flakes.

Such whining has several flaws. First, it is not for bureaucrats like May to determine which scientists are ‘serious,’ or to ask that some researchers be ignored because they are above being made fun of (they aren’t — the good ones as well as the bad ones).

Secondly, the IgNobels are organised by academics, for academics — unlike the notorious Golden Fleece awards in the U.S., with which May compares the IgNobels. The IgNobels let science laugh at itself.

Thirdly, the work of genuinely ‘serious’ scientists will withstand transitory embarrassment at the hands of TV comics and tabloid newspapers — assuming, of course, that their work really is recognised as ‘serious’ by other scientists. If, under a sudden spotlight, some scientists have to spend much time and effort explaining to everyone why their work is worth funding, that is a good thing and should happen more often, not less.

Finally, May reportedly suggests that the IgNobel organiser should obtain winners’ consent first. But the British scientists did agree to receive their award last year, which makes May’s grumbling distinctly off-target. Furthermore, that particular award proved that media mischief can not be avoided by obtaining prior consent. As the IgNobel organiser, Marc Abrahams, has pointed out to May, ‘there are few things, good or bad, that British tabloids and TV comedians do not ridicule.’

Far from making a convincing case for the pernicious effect of the IgNobels, May’s misfire only makes him (and British science) look thin-skinned and humourless. He mistakes discomfort for disaster, and solemnity for seriousness. And he misunderstands the point, the process, and the pleasure of the awards. On this topic, scientists and others should reject this adviser’s ill-advised views. Long may British scientists take their rightful places in the IgNobel honour roll.

The 1995 Prize that prompted May’s complaint honored three Norwich scientists “for their rigorous analysis of soggy breakfast cereal, published in a report titled ‘A Study of the Effects of Water Content on the Compaction Behaviour of Breakfast Cereal Flakes.’ ” That same year, Nick Leeson won a share of the Economics Prize for his role in bringing down Barings Bank.

The Robert May flap did not deter the Ig Nobel Board of Governors from giving full consideration to high achievers in the UK. Nor did it deter future winners from accepting their unusual place on the world stage.

In 1996, undaunted by the very public stance of his nation’s chief science official, Robert Matthews of Aston University won and happily accepted the Physics Prize for demonstrating that toast often falls on the buttered side. In 1997, Harold Hillman of the University of Surrey won the Ig Nobel Peace Prize for his influential report “The Possible Pain Experienced During Execution by Different Methods.” In 1998, three doctors from the Royal Gwent Hospital shared the Medicine Prize with the anonymous patient who was the subject of their cautionary medical report, “A Man Who Pricked His Finger and Smelled Putrid for 5 Years.”

Indeed, the UK has produced at least one winner (and often more) every year since 1992. The pool of UK nominees for the Ig Nobel Prize is so deep that it could easily supply all ten winners every year. But the same is true of many other nations. In the unending competition for Igs, reputation alone counts for nothing. No country can or should rely on the glories of its past accomplishments.

In 2002 a curiously sweet twist of fate occurred in the form of a special guest. The British newspaper The Observer described it in their report about that year’s ceremony:

The real surprise was the presence of Professor David King, the Government’s chief scientific adviser. The UK science establishment has scorned the Ig Nobels. King’s predecessor, Lord May, demanded UK scientists be dropped from consideration because success might harm their careers. He had become incensed by East Anglia University scientists who won an award for explaining why breakfast cereal becomes soggy.

‘I don’t want to be critical of Bob [May], but I think this is all good fun,’ said King.

In fact, many scientists believe the Ig Nobel is better at enhancing the reputation of science than its straight-laced counterpart.

By the way — on Christmas Eve of that same year, 2002, the Japanese public television network NHK broadcast a special program about the Ig Nobel Prizes. The producers later told us that the program drew a larger audience than anything else broadcast on the network that entire year.

HOW TO READ THIS BOOK

This book is meant to be read aloud, preferably in elevators for the edification of your fellow passengers. Trains, buses, subways, and waiting rooms are other good places. If you work in a group that has a tedious weekly meeting, try reading one section each week as a means of drawing the meeting to an early conclusion. No one will want, or be able, to discuss schedules and budgets after they hear your reading.

If you are a teacher, read some of the sections aloud in class, either as inspiration or as real-life cautionary tales. (Please do not tell your students beforehand that you’ll be reading something funny. Just read it deadpan — that way it’s much more enjoyable and memorable for the students as, one by one, they catch on and really start paying attention.)

Do not read the entire book at one sitting, as it might render you too jazzed or too jaded to sleep for the next several days.

Each of the Ig Nobel Prize winners has a much deeper and more intriguing story than it was possible to tell in this book. Use the references to find further information.

Go to the Annals of Improbable Research Web site (www.improbable.com) for links to (in most cases) the winners’ home pages, published work, and/or press clippings. There you will also find video of several of the Ig Nobel Prize ceremonies, and links to recordings of the annual Ig Nobel radio broadcast on National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation/Science Friday with Ira Flatow” program.

We also publish, in the magazine (AIR), and in the free monthly E-mail newsletter (mini-AIR), news of the continuing adventures of past Ig Nobel Prize winners.

After reading the book, you might find it interesting to do two things. First, compare your impression of particular Ig winners with that of someone whose judgment with which you think you agree. The question “Which of these are commendable and which damnable?” may reveal unexpected differences of opinion and personality.

Second, peruse the appendix that lists the winners year-by-year. Pick any year. Muse for a few moments about what ideas may have been batted around when that crop of winners met each other at the Ig Nobel Ceremony and playfully talked about combining their work. The discussion at the 1999 ceremony, for one, was particularly inspired.

A final word before you begin: THESE PEOPLE AND THEIR ACHIEVEMENTS ARE REAL. If you have trouble believing that — and you will — then use the references and go look it up yourself. Then you’ll see . . .

Reprinted from “The Ig Nobel Prizes” by Marc Abrahams by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © Marc Abrahams, 2002. All rights reserved. The author and publisher are grateful to Chemistry and Industry for their editorial We Are Not Amused © Chemistry and Industry, 1996. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.

TOP