Rocky Mountain News
Denver, Colorado     December 7, 1997

Linda Seebach

Having fun with science, but for a serious 

I'd heard about the magazine Annals of 
Improbable Research, and so when I saw the 
anthology Best of AIR at Tattered Cover I 
thought it would be a good Christmas 
present for someone I know who agrees with 
AIR's fundamental principle: Science is 
too important to be stuffy about.

But I'll have to buy another copy; I'm 
going to keep this one.

AIRheads, as fans and contributors proudly 
style themselves, know that real science 
is sometimes inadvertently or inevitably 

In this category, the anthology includes 
an article by a pioneering veterinarian 
from New York who deliberately infested 
himself with ear mites.

"By the second week, when the late night 
feeding pattern had become well 
established..."-no, I'll spare you the 
rest of the details.

Then there's Transmission of Gonorrhoea 
Through an Inflatable Doll, which 
fortunately doesn't go into details 
(though imagination suffices).

AIR editor and co-founder Marc Abrahams is 
also the creator and master of ceremonies 
of the annual Ig Nobel prizes, which honor 
people whose achievements "cannot or 
should not be reproduced."

Both the vet and the doctors are worthy 
recipients of the Ig, in 1994 for 
Entomology and in 1996 for Public Health.

The Seventh First Annual Ig Nobel Prize 
Ceremony was held at Harvard University 
Oct. 9. I'm pleased to discover that the 
work of two 1997 winners have previously 
been recognized in this column. Sanford 
Wallace, president of Cyber Promotions, 
was honored in the Communications for his 
dedication to junk e-mail, and Michael 
Drosnin won the Literature prize for his 
book The Bible Code.

You can read all about it on AIR's web 
site, www.improb.com, or subscribe to 
their monthly on-line bulletin, mini-AIR.

Other contributors are funny on purpose.

"It is not difficult to demonstrate that 
apples and oranges can, in fact, be 
compared," wrote Scott Sandford. He 
compared a Granny Smith Apple and a 
Sunkist Navel Orange by preparing samples 
of each and putting them in a 

The infrared transmission spectra are 
really quite similar, and useful, Sandford 
writes, in argument where one is accused 
of "comparing apples and oranges."

There is a serious intent to all this, if 
you can discern it through the hail of 
paper airplanes. (Paper airplanes? Indeed; 
the 1,200 people who attend the Igs throw 
paper airplanes. At the participating 
dignitaries, who normally include a number 
of genuine, as opposed to Ig, Nobel 

"In our benevolently megalomaniacal way, 
we are trying to seduce people everywhere 
into the habit of thinking about what they 
are told by television, magazine and 
newspaper reports and by Official 
Persons," Abrahams writes.

An article in the first issue of AIR, in 
1995, examined the taxonomy of Barney. 
Based on X-rays of the skeleton, 
behavioral characteristics and other data, 
it claimed the species is a not a dinosaur 
at all, but a previously unrecognized form 
of hominid!

In the field of education, Steven Rushen 
of Penn State University contributes a 
thoughtful analysis of The Dead in the 
Classroom. Comparing 15 dead students with 
30 live ones in an early-morning freshman 
economics class, Rushen finds the dead 
have superior performance in many 
respects, including attendance and 
behavior. The weakest point of the dead 
students was their performance on 
examinations, where their scores on 
average were 30 to 40 points below the 
class mean.

Finally, I offer this "news you can use," 
from Dennis McClain-Furmanski of the 
College of Health Sciences at Old Dominion 
University. It's title: A Mechanism for 
Getting and Keeping Students' Attention.

Before the first day of class, get a candy 
case or white stick candy (no red 
stripes!) and bring with you to class a 
piece of it about an inch long. Pick up a 
piece of chalk, write your name on the 
chalkboard, and as you turn around, switch 
the chalk and the candy.

"Face the students, and while giving them 
an intense look of meaningful 
concentration, place the candy in your 
mouth and chew."

Not only will you have their attention, he 
says, but this exercise is also the first 
indication you will have of the relative 
rate of cognition of this crop of 

I'd never have the nerve to try it. But I 
bet it works.

Merry Christmas.

Linda Seebach is a News editorial writer.