(Wall Street Journal, Monday November 11, 1996)
Sorting Out This Case Could Take
The Wisdom of a Learned Hand
By Ross Kerber
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
The value of a Nobel Prize-worthy feat is clearly
established: The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
pays $1.1 million to winners of the coveted awards.
The value of Nobel Prize-worthy feet is harder to
fix, but two of them have evidently fallen into the
At an auction in Cambridge, Mass., last month,
software engineer Nigel J. Foster says he paid $15
for a plaster sculpture of the left foot of Richard
Roberts, a biologist who won the Nobel Prize in
1993. The Roberts foot now sits on Mr. Foster's mantel
in nearby Newton.
But another bidder, Jylene Livengood, says she paid
$30 for the Roberts replica and is its rightful owner.
The event was sponsored by the Annals of Improbable
Research, which each year spoofs the Nobels with its
own Ig Nobel awards for scientific work that "cannot
or should not be reproduced." This year's winners
include a Purdue University professor who invented a
way to fire up a barbecue grill using liquid oxygen,
and a University of Buffalo professor for proving that
"financial strain is a risk indicator for destructive
For this year's ceremony, Annals editors convinced
four real Nobel laureates - -- Dr. Roberts, Sheldon
Glashow (physics, 1979), Dudley Herschbach (chemistry
1986) and William Lipscomb (chemistry 1976) to sit for
castings of their feet, to be auctioned to raise money
for science programs.
Mr. Foster concedes he may have bid on another
foot. But he says he noticed the sculptures being
carried off by parties unknown, and grabbed the last
one -- the Roberts foot -- before it got away.
When Ms. Livengood went to claim her prize, all the
feet were gone. Her appeals to Mr. Foster have been in
vain. "Let's face it, there aren't too many people on
the planet with one of these," he says.
The Annals has been unable to sort out the mess. It
didn't take winning bidders' names, and doesn't know
what became of the Glashow or the Lipscomb feet. (The
Herschbach foot has been accounted for.)
The group has posted this notice on its Web site:
"If you purchased one of the feet, please get in touch
with us, so that we may rectify this embarrassing
For his part, Dr. Roberts says he's not worried
about the foot's ownership. He's surprised it fetched
any price at all. Of Mr. Foster, Dr. Roberts says, "I
think he overpaid."