Copyright 1998 The Telegraph Group Limited

SUNDAY TELEGRAPH(LONDON)

October 4, 1998, Sunday				Pg. 04

Sunday Review Features: Buttered toast, bears and boffins
The IgNobel prize, awarded for genuine yet barmy attempts
to advance knowledge, gives mad scientists the
recognition they deserve. James Langton investigates

By JAMES LANGTON

	ROY James Hurtubise, inventor, naturalist and
explorer, is a man whose time has come. His Ursus Mark VI
grizzly-bear-close-quarter-protection-suit has consumed
most of his adult life and all his money. Indeed, anyone
who saw Troy testing the suit in the wilds of Canada for
the first time, immediately falling over and being unable
to move, might think it has consumed a good part of his
mind, too.

But next week he will stand in front of a packed audience
at Harvard University, including at least five Nobel
Prize laureates, and at last receive the recognition of
his peers. At the age of 34, Troy, who has lived most of
his life in the remote Upper Ontario town of North Bay,
has been invited, with the Ursus VI, to be the keynote
speaker at the 1998 IgNobel Prizes, a ceremony honouring
what the organisers airily call achievements that
"cannot, or should not, be reproduced". It is an open
secret that he is one of this year's winners.

To collect an IgNobel can be as challenging as winning
one of the genuine Swedish awards. "After all these
years, it is nice to be thought of seriously instead of
being viewed as some crazy guy out chasing bears," says
Troy, who estimates that he spent more than $1m on
building the Ursus VI and then went bankrupt.

Not everyone is always so thrilled. When a group of
British scientists, Drs Georget, Parker and Smith, won
the 1995 IgNobel for Physics with the ground-breaking
Study of the Effects of Water Content on the Compaction
Behaviour of Breakfast Cereal Flakes - or what makes
cereal soggy - the Government's science adviser, Sir
Robert May, wrote the organisers a cross letter asking
them not to give any more prizes to Our Boffins.

Sir Robert will need to look for another airmail
envelope, because the American panel that chooses the
IgNobels has once again honoured a British contribution
to weird science. This year's IgNobel for medicine will
go a research study at a British hospital, the names and
subject a closely guarded secret until the award
ceremony, when they will be revealed at the Sanders
Theatre in Harvard to the traditional fusillade of paper
darts.

Brits have always done well at the IgNobels. They were
founded in 1991 by Marc Abrahams, a science writer and
mathematician, who says he is continually impressed at
the ingenuity shown by such small islands. "Of course, it
also helps that we can read the papers without too much
trouble," he adds.

Thus Nick Leeson and his superiors at Barings Bank took
the 1995 prize for economics, while Dr Robert Matthews,
of Aston University and The Sunday Telegraph, won the
1996 IgNobel for physics with his Tumbling toast,
Murphy's Law and the Fundamental Constants, which
explains why toast usually falls on the buttered side.

At the heart of the IgNobel prizes is the Annals of
Improbable Research, a monthly journal dedicated to
proving that there is no limit to which human ingenuity
is prepared to plunge, particularly if there is a chance
of a government research grant.

Few will forget the 1996 award for public health won by
Ellen Kleist of Nuuk, Greenland, and Harald Moi of Olso
for the "cautionary medical report", Tranmission of
Gonorrhoea Through an Inflatable Doll. After receiving
his prize, Dr Moi delivered a lecture at Harvard Medical
School, and, says Mr Abrahams, "Everyone came away saying
that they had learnt something."

The Annals of Improbable Research is run from the top
floor of a quaint clapboard house in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, only a few streets away from one of the
world's greatest academic institutions. The office decor
includes a photograph of Einstein and a large cabbage, as
well as posters for all seven previous ceremonies.

Mr Abrahams well remembers sending out invitations for
the first IgNobels and wondering if anyone would turn
up. In fact, more than 300 did - in a room designed for
90. They included four real Nobel prize-winners, two of
whom arrived dressed as Groucho Marx and the third
wearing a fez.The tone had been set for a distinguished
ceremony - distinguished, that is, by heckling and bad
behaviour - which now sells all 1,200 tickets almost
overnight and is broadcast on American public television.

But what does it take to win an IgNobel? Mr Abrahams has
a number of definitions, including: "Anyone who has done
something which is both funny and thought-provoking." The
humour need not be intentional; indeed, it often
isn't. Those who realise that the joke is on them usually
show up to collect their awards.

Others take it harder. The Michigan inventor, an early
winner who pioneered a windscreen projector that enabled
motorists to watch television while driving, took his
inclusion hard, virtually slamming down the phone at the
good news. "He doubted that the award would do him or his
company any good," recalls Mr Abrahams. The inventor, who
insisted the car TV projector was "perfectly safe", was
later observed by an American newspaper reporter driving
through a series of red traffic lights.

The other crucial point about the IgNobels is that they
are only awarded for genuine, if often seemingly
pointless, efforts to increase the sum of human
knowledge. Mr Abrahams says he knows of only one
scientific paper written with an eye on an IgNobel, and
that was the 1996 award for biology, for The Effect of
Ale, Garlic and Soured Cream on the Appetite of Leeches.

Even so, the study, by Anders Baerheim and Hogne Sandvik,
of the University of Bergen, was published in the British
Medical Journal, because it provides valuable information
on stimulating leeches prior to their use in controlling
the blood supply in some reconstructive surgery.

But what of Shigeru Watanabe and his team at Keio
University, Japan, with their success recently in
training pigeons to distinguish between paintings by
Monet and Picasso? Or the four dedicated researchers who
produced The Constipated Serviceman: Prevalence Among
Deployed US Troops. The citation commends "their
numerical analysis of bowel movement frequency".

Then there are the otherwise unheralded efforts by David
Busch and James Starling, of Wisconsin, who listed a
frozen pig's tail, a beer glass and seven light bulbs in
their report for the journal Surgery, entitled Rectal
foreign bodies: Case Reports and Comprehensive Review of
the World's Literature.

Busch and Starling took the 1995 IgNobel prize for
literature, demonstrating another twist to the prizes:
they can be awarded in sometimes unexpected ways. Don
Featherstone, of Massachusetts, won last year's IgNobel
for art by inventing the pink plastic Flamingo lawn
ornament. A few years earlier the Southern Baptist Church
of Alabama took the mathematics prize after calculating
the exact number of the state's population who would be
going to Hell.

The highlights of this year's ceremony will include an
opera devoted to central heating duct tape (after a study
proved that the tape was almost useless), and a
win-a-date-with-a-Nobel-Laureate competition.

Those who attend the awards can expect a memorable
evening. John Martinez won won the Nutrition Prize a
couple of years ago for discovering the world's most
expensive coffee - produced from partly digested beans
excreted by the Indonesia Luak cat - and then brewed cups
for the guests.

Another winner, Robert Lopez, a vet from New York, was
honoured for experiments in which he proved humans could
be bitten by cat mites by introducing them in to his own
ear. Now studying the nutritional value of insects, Mr
Lopez baked cookies at a recent ceremony.

Of all the winners, though, none stands as tall as Troy
Hurtubise and his Ursus VI, not least because the 5ft
10in inventor is 7ft 2in when inside it.  The awards
panel were captivated by his dedication to science, which
included throwing himself off a cliff and challenging
all-comers in a bikers' bar.

Troy is sufficiently encouraged by his new recognition to
have begun work on a new G-Man suit, capable of resisting
temperatures of up to 3,000.F, and which may be used to
explore volcanoes. "It is beyond comprehension what this
thing looks like," he says. "Even Robocop would stand in
his shadow."