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.