Harvard Gazette
October 15, 1998

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Ig Nobels Laugh at Science

Clams on Prozac, an opera about duct tape, sinking
telephone booths, a blitz of paper planes, and then the
jokes began.

By William J. Cromie

Gazette Staff

No one was surprised when the 1998 Ig Nobel Peace Prize
went to Prime Minister Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee of India
and his "colleague" Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of
Pakistan for their "aggressively peaceful explosions of
atomic bombs." The award, after all, was presented at the
Eight First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony held in Sanders
Theatre on Oct.  8.

The audience did register surprise, however, when the Ig
Nobel Prize for Biology when to Peter Fong of Gettysburg
College in Pennsylvania for depressing experiments in
which he and his colleagues used Prozac to enhance the
reproductive capacity of clams.

The audience was also shocked by the announcement that two
Canadians, Jerald Bain and Kerry Siminoski, copped the
Statistics Prize for their measured work on "The
Relationship Among Height, Penile Length, and Foot Size."
When the audience laughed self-consciously, Bain (who has
very small feet) protested: "This is an important study
and I hope you take it seriously."

Fong's research was actually published in the Journal of
Experimental Zoology (vol. 280, 1998) and Bain's in the
Annals of Sex Research (vol. 6, no. 3, 1993). They nicely
exemplify the reason for which Ig Nobel Prizes were
created: to award achievements that "cannot or should not
be reproduced."

The annual ceremony, which includes a handful of real
Nobel Prize winners, is one of the few events where
scientists laugh at themselves (at least in public).

 

Undignified Parodies

The ceremony was held in richly paneled Sanders Theatre,
where audiences usually listen (or doze off) to speeches
by dignitaries from Harvard and other places. But there
the resemblance to the real thing ends. Instead of
applauding the appearance of the King and Queen of Sweden,
a rowdy audience whoops and shouts at the Queen and King
of Swedish Meatballs.

The show begins with a parade of various dignitaries,
"ignitaries," authority figures, and unlikely
delegations. The Harvard Band marched through the theater
playing "10,000 Men of Harvard." The band was followed by
representatives of Non-Extremists for Moderate Change, the
Society for Creative Anachronism, and the Museum of Bad
Art.

Audience members were given sheets of paper and encouraged
to make paper airplanes to throw at the dignitaries,
ignitaries, and delegates, who tossed them back. As the
night wore on, making paper planes grew tiring, so people
just wadded up the sheets and flung them at each other.

Every Ig Nobel ceremony boasts a theme, although no one is
sure why. This year it was duct tape. There was a
duct-tape fashion show wherein all garments were made of
the sticky stuff. There was a three-act mini-opera called
La Forze del Duct Tape.

In the last act, the "hero" of the opera gets wrapped in
duct tape by four Nobel Prize winners: Sheldon Glashow, a
physics laureate who wore his medal to the ceremony;
Dudley Herschbach, Baird Professor of Science, who also
played drums; chemist William Lipscomb, who played the
clarinet; and Richard Roberts, winner of a Noble Prize in
Medicine in 1993. who was auctioned off as a door
prize. All four put on oversized shoes for the
presentation of the Ig Nobel in statistics.

All roads to humor these days go through the White House,
and the sponsors of the show could not resist paving the
road with duct tape. Flyers announced "New and Improved
Presidential Duct Tape, Especially Engineered and
Formulated to Keep Presidential Trousers On, Presidential
Flies Closed, and Presidential Interns' Mouths Shut."

Unsavory Awards

Naturally, duct tape was part of the Ig Nobel Prizes
themselves. Trophies consisted of a fat roll along with a
plastic duck, both mounted on a cheap wooden stand.

Winners also received a plastic bag containing a roll of
Duck brand duct tape and some other junk.

Ten such prizes were awarded. The Prize for Safety
Engineering went to Troy Hurtubise of North Bay, Ontario,
for developing and personally testing a suit of armor he
claims will protect people against grizzly bears. He
appeared with one of the cumbersome-looking red-and-white
suits, which contain 7,600 feet of duct tape.

The Chemistry Prize was awarded to Jacques Benveniste, a
Frenchman who believes that water has memory. He won the
1991 Chemistry Ig Nobel for that theory. Last week, he
became the first person in history to win a second Ig
Nobel for "discovering" that biological information in
water memory can be transmitted over telephone lines and
the Internet. These claims were met with sounds of toilets
flushing and slides of a telephone booth that is sinking
while a man inside tries to make a call.

The much sought-after Prize for Science Education was
presented to Dolores Krieger, professor emerita at New
York University, for her studies of therapeutic
touch. Nurses treat patients by passing their hands though
energy fields that surround their bodies (the patients'
bodies). There is no actual touching; the healing comes
from manipulating the energy field.

Marc Abrahams, the master of ceremonies announced that
Dr. Krieger "could not, or would not, be with us tonight."
The prize was accepted by 11-year-old Emily Rosa, who did
an experiment that showed such fields do not exist. Emily
did the debunking when she was 9 years old. She, her
mother, Linda, and two collaborators published their
results in the April 1, 1998, issue of the Journal of the
American Medical Association (vol. 279, no. 13,
pp. 1005-10).

The audience shouted, stamped their feet, and gave Emily a
standing ovation.

The coveted Ig Nobel Prize in Physics went to Deepak
Chopra of the Center for Well Being in La Jolla, Calif.,
for "his unique interpretation of quantum physics as it
applies to life, liberty, and the pursuit of economic
happiness." Sheldon Glashow, who won a real Nobel Prize
for physics in 1979 and who teaches quantum physics at
Harvard, made some unflattering comments about Chopra's
claims.

Richard Seed of Chicago announced earlier this year that
he would begin experiments that would lead to the cloning
of humans, starting with himself.  As that could be quite
profitable (a couple in Texas has give researchers $2.3
million to clone their dog), Seed easily won the Ig Noble
Prize in Economics

"Dr. Seed could not join use tonight," Abrahams
announced. "Someone is paying him a lot of money to give a
speech in Ireland."

The Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine went to "patient Y" and his
doctors at Royal Gwent Hospital in Newport, Wales, for
their odious report, "A Man Who Pricked His Finger and
Smelled Putrid for 5 years." A cousin of one of the
doctors accepted the award and announced that the story
has a happy ending.  The patient no longer smells. No
other details were given.

Last and least came the Literature Prize. It went to Mara
Sidoli who wrote in the Journal of Analytic Psychology
(vol. 41, no. 2, 1996) about "Farting as a Defence Against
Unspeakable Dread."

In the event readers wish to assess praise or blame for
the Prize show, it was sponsored by Annals of Improbable
Research, also known as AIR or "the MAD magazine of
Science." Marc Abrahams is editor of AIR.

Cosponsors include the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction
Association, the Harvard Computer Society, and Manco,
proud suppliers of Duck Tape.

For more details, see http://www.improbable.com.
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