Arizona Republic, 1996
POKING FUN OF SCIENCE A NOBEL JOB
c.1996 The Arizona Republic
Probably you, like me, could hardly wait to
learn who the latest Nobel Prize winners are.
"Wait, don't go for more beer yet! Look -- Harold W. Kroto
of Britain and Robert F. Curl Jr. and Richard E. Smalley of
the U.S. won the Nobel Prize for chemistry!"
"YES! All right, suckers, pay up."
But the possibility exists that, just maybe, these staid
prizes and their winners could stand to have the tiniest hole
poked in their armor of seriousness.
And happily, there stands Marc Abrahams with a giant
Abrahams is editor of The Annals of Improbable Research, a
delightful publication that manages to both deflate the
seriousness of and promote the importance of science at the
same time (check it out at http://www.improb.com on the World
Well and good. But the magazine's greatest contribution to
society, if you could call it that, is the Ig Nobel Prize
Ceremony, which honors "people whose achievements cannot or
should not be reproduced." For those not likely to split an
atom anytime soon, it's a spoof of the Nobel Prizes. The
science, mind you, is real. So is the humor.
"It was started to honor all these people who should be
honored but would otherwise go neglected," Abrahams said
from Cambridge, Mass. "Some go for very good science. They
just happen to be very funny. Like the inflatable doll."
Ah, he means the Public Health award, given to Ellen
Kleist of Nuuk, Greenland, and Harald Moi of Oslo for their
"cautionary medical report," Transmission of Gonorrhea
Through an Inflatable Doll.
Other winners include:
Physics - Robert Matthews of Aston University in England
for his studies of Murphy's Law, and especially for
demonstrating that toast always falls onto the buttered side.
Biology - Anders Baerheim and Hogne Sandvik of the
University of Bergen in Norway for their report, Effect of
Ale, Garlic and Soured Cream on the Appetite of Leeches.
Literature - The editors of Social Text, for publishing
research they could not understand, that the author said was
meaningless and which claimed reality does not exist. (Sounds
like my column.)
Economics - Dr. Robert J. Genco of the University of
Buffalo for his discovery that "financial strain is a risk
indicator for destructive periodontal disease."
Now, before you say, so what, these guys find funny
science and make fun of it, you should know that the
ceremony, held at Harvard on Oct. 3 (it was the "sixth first
annual" ceremony), is both a riot and well-attended. For
instance, Moi flew in from Norway at his own expense.
And presenters this year included genuine Nobel laureates,
such as Dudley Herschbach and William Lipscomb.
"We try to get people interested in science," Abrahams
said. "I thought this might be a different approach,
something that might help a little bit. Apparently, we're
having quite an effect that way. I've been told by some Nobel
laureates that's why they keep coming back."
Actually, they came from the start.
"The first year, we just said, "We're having a ceremony
at this-and-such date.' Four Nobel laureates showed up
wearing Groucho glasses," Abrahams said.
Of course, not every winner attends. For instance, none in
the Medicine category came this year. Maybe that's because
they were representatives of tobacco companies, "honored"
for "their unshakable discovery, as testified to the U.S.
Congress, that nicotine is not addictive."
Most winners, however, do show, even if it's with egg on
"There have been a couple of times when we gave prizes to
people who were maybe a little embarrassed about it - and
maybe they should have been embarrassed about it - but by
coming, it's a nice way of saying, "Hey, we all make
mistakes," Abrahams said.
Besides, they wouldn't want to miss the annual
performance. The past couple of years, it was a ballet - in
which laureates "danced." This year, they staged an opera,
Lament Del Cockroach.
Sounds like more fun than memorizing the periodic table of
the elements, to me.
Bill Goodykoontz can be reached at 271-8828, or at
email@example.com on the Internet.