Arizona Republic October 21, 1998 HAVING FUN IS IG NOBEL ENDEAVOR By BILL GOODYKOONTZ c.1998 The Arizona Republic Let's see, Amartya K. Sen won the Nobel Prize for economics the other day, and Walter Kohn and John Pople won for chemistry . . . wait, if it's Nobel season, that can only mean one thing -- it's also time for the Ig Nobels! If you think of the Nobel Prizes as "Masterpiece Theatre," think of the Ig Nobels as "The Larry Sanders Show." The work is still top-notch; it's just that it's also funny as hell, poking a hole in Nobel pretentiousness. Unless you are the sort who can't find humor in this year's Ig Nobel prize for biology, given to Peter Fong of Gettysburg, Penn., for "contributing to the happiness of clams by giving them Prozac." Gives new meaning to the phrase happy as a . . . well, you know. Last week I made my annual check-in with Mark Abrahams ("Congratulations on not winning again this year," he began). Abrahams is the editor of "Annals of Improbable Research" (www.improbable.com), which is that most delightful of oxymorons: the science humor magazine. "AIR" sponsors the Ig Nobel ceremony at Harvard, at which the prizes are presented in a ceremony that always includes genuine Nobel laureates giving them away (four were on hand this year). "Some people think these prizes are given to things that are bad," Abrahams said. "That's not the case. They're given for achievements that cannot or should not be reproduced. And that covers just about anything." No kidding. For instance, the Ig Nobel in medicine this year went to Patient Y and his doctors at Royal Gwent Hospital, in Newport, Wales, for "the cautionary medical report `A Man Who Pricked His Finger and Smelled Putrid for 5 Years.' " Sniffing out a winner "They had never seen a case like this before," Abrahams said, adding that the authors published the report in part to see if any other doctors had treated similar maladies and knew how to help the poor wretch. Happily it appears that things are going to turn out OK. "They said the man smells better now," Abrahams said. "Apparently he's doing tolerably well." None of the doctors could attend the ceremony, but one of their cousins is an undergrad at Harvard so he picked up the prize for them. "He smelled fine," Abrahams said. Other winners included Jerald Bain of Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto and Kerry Siminoski of the University of Alberta in the statistics category for their carefully measured report "The Relationship Among Height, Penile Length and Foot Size." The four Nobel laureates all wore gigantic shoes when presenting the prize. "You looked over and could see these four men (begin ital) beaming," (end ital) Abrahams said, "with the biggest grins on their face you can possibly imagine." Persistence pays off Then there is perhaps Abrahams' favorite Ig Nobel this year, in safety engineering, which went to Troy Hurtubise, of North Bay, Ontario, for developing and personally testing a suit of armor that is impervious to . . . grizzly bears. "He's been working at this stuff for years," Abrahams said of Hurtubise, who has tinkered with the suit for a decade. "It's a guy with an idea who's really stuck with it. How often do you see that?" The awards ceremony included, among other things, numerous tributes to duct tape, including a duct-tape fashion show and, naturally, a duct-tape opera. Then there was the annual Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobel-Laureate contest. . . . If this sounds like a bunch of extremely intelligent people goofing off in a somewhat scientific way, that's because it is. Sort of. "Underneath there is a half-serious intent," Abrahams said, "which is that we are all hoping this can get more people interested in science -- that science isn't a yucky thing." I think he's on to something. Until I heard about the Ig Nobels, the only time I ever considered science fun was when I saw a guy named John toss a half-dissected frog out the window in 10th-grade biology. But now I see science's lighter side, the fun that it can offer. Even if I do have rather small feet. Bill Goodykoontz can be reached at bill.goodykoontz(at)pni.com via e-mail.