Reprinted from JAMA
Journal of the American Medical Association
Medical News & Perspectives - April 1, 1998
In this Is It Ig Nobler for Science to Suffer the Slings & Arrows
of Outrageous Foolery?
Twas the saying of an ancient sage, . . . that
humor was the only test of gravity, and gravity of
humor. For a subject which would not bear raillery
was suspicious; and a jest which would not bear a
serious examination was certainly false wit.
--Anthony Cooper, Earle of Shaftesbury (1671-1713)
SHOULD SCIENCE always be taken seriously? That question
is at the heart of a debate that has been smoldering ever
since the United Kingdom's top science adviser, Sir
Robert May, warned of the risk of poking fun at
scientists without their consent (Nature. 1996;383:291).
What provoked his outcry may have been the propensity of
scientists in the United Kingdom to win more than their
share of Ig Nobel Prizes.
Called the world's most "(un)coveted award for
achievements that cannot or should not be reproduced,"
the Ig Nobel Prizes are bestowed at Harvard University in
Cambridge, Mass, in October, around the same time that
the Nobel Prizes are handed out in Stockholm, Sweden.
Like the more noble Nobels, Ig Nobel Prizes are given
each year for distinctive achievements in physics,
chemistry, medicine or physiology, literature, peace, and
economics, or reasonable facsimiles thereof. Unlike the
Nobels, they are awarded in a ceremony famous for
irreverence and high jinks, with genuine Nobel laureates
handing out the awards and playing to a packed audience
of paper airplane-throwing academics.
[PHOTO: In the midst of Harvard high jinks, Harald Moi,
MD, of Oslo, Norway, accepts his 1996 Ig Nobel
Prize in Public Health for his case report, 'Transmission
of Gonorrhea Through an Inflatable Doll' (Genitourin Med.
1993;69:322). Source: Stephen Powel/Annals of Improbable
Marc Abrahams, editor of the satirical journal of science
Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), has been the master
of these zany ceremonies since staging the first one in
1991, at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in
Cambridge. He founded this "good-natured spoof " of
science and the Nobel Prize ceremony to "honor the
world's largely overlooked scientists and other
contributors to modern culture, who bring smiles and
guffaws to others, whether intentional or not." The
"Igs," as they are affectionately called, "are named
after Ignatius Nobel, the legendary coinventor of soda
pop and rumored relative of Alfred, the one who invented
dynamite and founded those other prizes," Abrahams said.
Among past Ig Nobel laureates are cranks and kooks,
jesters and pranksters, but also hard-working researchers
who chose to examine-sometimes a bit too closely-the
foibles of their fellow humans. Each year, the ceremony
receives extensive coverage from local, national, and
international news media, including a broadcast of the
entire ceremony over National Public Radio. It was also
televised on C-Span in 1996 and has been telecast live
over the Internet for the past 3 years.
'Causing a Lot of Grief'
Britain's chief science adviser May was not pleased with
some of that attention-especially the "snap, crackle, and
pop" news coverage given the British food scientists who
won the 1995 Ig Nobel in physics for their study of how
breakfast cereal flakes get soggy in milk. In the Nature
interview, May accused the Ig Nobel Prize organizers of
"causing a lot of grief " by subjecting "genuine"
scientific projects to counterproductive ridicule. They
should focus on people engaged in pseudoscience and
antiscience and "leave serious scientists to get on with
their work," he said. He also suggested that they obtain
the scientists' consent before awarding future prizes.
Quick to defend the honor of the Ig Nobels was the
British publication Chemistry & Industry, which asked in
an October 7, 1996, editorial whether the British
government's chief science adviser is "a pompous
killjoy." May, the editorial said, "appears only to
confirm that the British scientific establishment takes
itself far too seriously...the work of genuinely
'serious' scientists will withstand transitory
embarrassment at the hands of TV comics and tabloid
newspapers-assuming, of course, that their work really is
recognized as 'serious' by other scientists. If, under a
sudden spotlight, some scientists have to spend much time
and effort explaining to everyone why their work is worth
funding, that is a good thing and should happen more
often, not less."
The serious cereal scientists also did not share May's
dismay. They were so delighted by the prize that they
sent Abrahams a humorous videotaped acceptance speech
that was shown at the Ig Nobel ceremony.
Abrahams is excellent at marshaling the farces of his
Nobel laureate comrades in defending the inalienable
right to pursue fun in science. When the animal rights
group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
appropriated the name "Ig Nobel" for an award to
disparage the use of animals in research, the response
was quick and unified: In a press release on January 9,
1995, Abrahams announced that the "international science
community is shocked by the Washington lobbying group's
actions." He was joined by 5 Nobel laureates: "I am
shocked,'' said Harvard professor William Lipscomb
(Chemistry, 1976). "I am shocked," said Harvard professor
Sheldon Glashow (Physics, 1979). "I am shocked and
disgusted," said Harvard professor Dudley Herschbach
(Chemistry, 1986). MIT professor Jerome Friedman
(Physics, 1990), however, said that he was "appalled"
that someone would try to use the vehicle of the Ig Nobel
awards for political aims. "The purpose of these awards
is to enhance the humor of our lives, something that is
in short supply and should be protected," he said. And
New England Biolabs research director Richard Roberts
(Physiology or Medicine, 1993) said, "It's outrageous. My
hair stands on end at the very thought of it."
Win a Date With a Nobel Laureate
Abrahams cooked up the Ig Nobels when he was editor of
AIR's predecessor and rival publication, Journal of
Irreproducible Results, from 1990 to 1994. Unhappy with
the then publisher, Blackwell Scientific Publications,
Cambridge, he quit and was followed by the merry band of
slaphappy Nobel laureates and other contributors.
Together with Alex Kohn (now deceased) and Harry Lipkin,
who cofounded the Journal of Irreproducible Results in
1955, Abrahams launched AIR, which now sponsors the
annual Ig Nobel events. Last year's cosponsors were the
Harvard Computer Society and the Harvard-Radcliffe
Science Fiction Association.
[PHOTO: Nobel laureates Dudley Herschbach, Richard
Roberts, and William Lipscomb joined The Nicola
Hawkins Dancers in performing the 'Momentum and Spin'
movement of The Interpretive Dance of the Electrons
during the 1996 Ig Nobel ceremony. Source: John
Naian/Annals of Improbable Research]
As in the previous events, award presentations at the
"Seventh First Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony" were interrupted
periodically for "Heisenberg Certainty Lectures" (named
for that pillar of modern physics, the Heisenberg
uncertainty principle developed by Nobel laureate Werner
Karl Heisenberg), which are delivered by the Nobel
laureates and other Ig dignitaries. The only certainty
about these lectures is that they can last no more than
30 seconds. If they exceed that, the speaker is whistled
off the stage by a referee. During the 1994 ceremony,
Nobel laureate Lipscomb showed that true genius can
overcome any restriction. He dedicated his Heisenberg
Certainty Lecture to the US Congress: "If your position
is everywhere, your momentum is zero." Nobel laureates
also take part in song and dance and other shenanigans,
including the annual "Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobel-Laureate
Comparing Apples and Oranges
Often called "the Mad Magazine of science," AIR and its
free monthly online supplement, called MiniAIR, which can
be accessed via the Internet (http://www.improb.com),
have an erudite following of "AIRheads" who contribute
material as eagerly as they read it. The print and online
journals publish both fictitious and genuine science;
often it is not clear which is which. "The material is
intended to be humorous and/or educational, and sometimes
is," Abrahams said. Some of his favorites-such as "The
Aerodynamics of Potato Chips" and "Apples and Oranges: A
Spectrographic Comparison"-have been recycled in the
book, The Best of Annals of Improbable Research (New
York, NY: WH Freeman & Co; 1997).
Abrahams, a 42-year-old former computer software
designer, now Puck of science, is a frequent guest on
talk shows and college campuses around the country, where
his deadpan expression effectively hides a tongue that's
virtually glued to his cheek as he speaks. Asked how Ig
Nobel winners are nominated, he replies "mostly by
AIRheads who submit their favorite candidates." So far,
only one prize went to scientists who nominated
themselves (Norwegians Anders Barheim, MD, and Hogne
Sandvik, MD, of the University of Bergen for their BMJ
study on stimulating the appetite of leeches; see
sidebar), although other forms of self-promotion have
brought several scientists Ig Nobel glory. "Science by
press release is one good way to bring yourself to the
attention of the Ig Nobel Board of Governors," Abrahams
said. "Researchers who attempt an end run around the peer
review process of science might as well be tacking an 'Ig
me' sign on their backs." Asked if any scientists or
their lawyers ever threatened to sue, he says, "It's an
odd thing. No."
Abrahams stresses that the Ig Nobel awards are presented
in good-natured fun and are never meant to ridicule
anyone. Well, hardly ever. The awards are "an effective
way to get people interested in science, which they often
think is scary or yucky," he said. "It's an underhanded
way of seducing people into thinking about science.
Although some awards may sound critical, they usually
just quote, without comment, the research in question.
Scientists can nominate themselves for the coveted
awards. They can also nominate their enemies."
According to Abrahams, science that seems absurd can have
considerable merit. He cites the research of the
Norwegian physicians who won the 1996 Ig Nobel in biology
for their study of how garlic, ale, and sour cream affect
the appetite of leeches. "This research may sound
sophomoric, but there's purpose behind it, since leeches
are again being used in medicine. Suppose you're doing
microsurgery to reattach a finger; what do you do if your
leech is not hungry? The conventional wisdom from 150
years ago-when doctors used lots of leeches-was that
garlic, ale, or sour cream stimulates the creatures'
appetite. Barheim and Sandvik set out to advance the
cause of medicine by testing that wisdom. They discovered
that beer makes leeches lazy and undisciplined, much the
way it affects us, and, while garlic attracts the little
bloodsuckers, it also kills them. So much for traditional
"Many scientific discoveries originally appeared as
irrelevant as the leech study may today," Abrahams said.
"One hundred plus years ago, doctors were hooted out of
medicine for saying you should wash your hands before
surgery. Today, in many hospitals it's not unusual to
find several doctors who wash their hands before surgery.
Just because something is funny does not mean it's bad.
But it doesn't mean it's not bad, either."
Like a Fun House Mirror
Some critics as well as supporters say that the Ig Nobel
Board of Governors has a definite humanist, even liberal,
agenda. "The awards committee would hesitate to ever say
it's trying to make a statement, or that it's even
capable of making a statement," Abrahams insists. The
humor in an Ig Nobel award should not depend on any
political or philosophical viewpoint. It doesn't matter
what one thinks of the nation's war on drugs to see how
deserving Texas State Senator Bob Glasgow was for his
1994 prize in chemistry, which was awarded in recognition
of his sponsorship of an antidrug law that makes it
illegal to purchase test tubes, flasks, beakers, or other
laboratory glassware without a permit.
The awards serve to remind scientists not to cling too
closely to any sacred cows. "To do so risks being mooed
if not gored at the next Ig Nobel prize ceremony,"
Abrahams said. The 1998 Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony will be
held at Harvard University's Sanders Theatre on Thursday,
October 8. Nominations for the 1998 prizes are still
being accepted. More information may be obtained via
AIR's Web site; by telephone, (617) 491-4437; or by mail
at AIR, PO Box 380853, Cambridge, MA 02238.
In establishing the Ig Nobels, Abrahams has created a
mirror image of the Nobel Prize and its august ceremony.
It's a fun house mirror that scientists can hold up for a
unique look at the scientific enterprise. Some may not
like what they see, but others are busy folding paper
into airplanes and waiting for the next show to begin.
-by Andrew A. Skolnick
© 1995-1998 American Medical Association. All rights