Arizona Republic, 1996

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 on the World 
Wide Web).
   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 
their faces.
   "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 on the Internet.