THE SKEPTIC, Volume 6 Number 4, 1998


All Duct Out In the Name of Science

The Eighth First Annual
Ig Nobel Awards
Provides 
Extraordinary Proof 
Thatscience Can Be Fun.


by Sheila Gibson

Carloads of illustrious folk pull up to the steps of Harvard 
University's Sanders Theater. Smiling attendees fully 
dressed in their finery, they stride up the sidewalk, coveted 
tickets in hand, ignoring the chill of the October night's rain. 
An awards show is taking place here.

But this isn't any old awards show. The illustrious folk 
aren't Hollywood actors and producers--they're Nobel prize 
laureates and professors. They aren't wearing smart tuxedos 
and Versace evening gowns with Harry Winston diamonds--
they've come in elaborate, ridiculous costumes, all of which 
incorporate duct tape. Has Halloween come early? Well, yes 
and no. This is the Ig Nobel awards.

The Igs, as they are affectionately known, are given by the 
science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research 
(AIR) to the perpetrators of dubious scientific achievements 
which "cannot or should not be reproduced." In the eight 
years since its debut, the Igs have become an annual ritual 
among science-loving smart people who have a sense of 
humor and know how to use it. It sells out every year, and 
an untold number hear edited highlights broadcast on 
National Public Radio.

But listening to the ceremonies on the radio is like watching 
the Rocky Horror Picture Show on video. You have to be 
there to truly enjoy it, and to truly enjoy it, you have to play 
along with it. You don't attend the Igs, you participate in 
them, even if it's just dodging the paper airplanes.

The Igs run about as long as the Oscars, but that's really 
where the comparison ceases. Cher and her shocking outfits 
can't match the Igs' duct tape fashion show, or anyone else 
in the costumed crowd for that matter. The Oscars don't, but 
should, have a burly, surly, black-clad, baseball-bat toting 
referee seated on stage to ensure that most speeches don't 
exceed 30 seconds. No film clips shown at the Oscars can 
compete with selections from Ig winner Troy Hurtubise's 
safety training films, in which he tests his personally- 
invented suit of armor by taking the full force of a 3-ton 
truck traveling at 50 kilometers an hour. And who needs 
Jack Palance doing one-handed pushups when you can see 
Nobel prize winners Dudley Herschbach and Sheldon 
Glashow giddily duct-taping an opera singer to a chair?

When it's all over, the floor will be awash in paper airplanes 
and balled-up duct tape and this year's crop of the fools and 
foes of science, as selected by the Ig Nobel committee, will 
have been cheerfully skewered. A total of 1,200 people will 
have watched the whole thing live. None of them will have 
seen exactly the same show.

As a card-carrying female attending an awards ceremony, I 
was faced with a time-honored dilemma: what should I 
wear? I wasn't with a delegation, who are obliged to come in 
costume, but I felt I should dress up to get into the spirit of 
things. This year's theme was a salute to that honorable 
substance that holds the universe together: duct tape. 
Obviously, that was a consideration in my fashion plans. I 
settled upon black Mary Poppins-style ankle boots, black 
tights with a semi-sheer fluffy black petticoat, a low-cut grey 
jacquard blouse with ruffles in the right places, plus 
matching chokers around my neck and left ankle. I didn't 
have time to enact my plan of creating a duct-tape garter with 
black sequins and lace and matching choker, but I did have 
time to dust my face, neck, and decolletage with fine silver 
glitter. And as the literal crowning glory, I took a science 
fish, drizzled it with silver glitter, and duct-taped it to a tiara. 
The science fish cost more than the tiara.

Before the show I went backstage (a place I did not 
technically belong) fully dressed as described above, 
searching for James Randi. I passed duct-taped commandos 
in fatigues, a nun, a monk, John the Baptist wearing a 
bloody plate around his neck, Marilyn Monroe, a pride of 
lawyers, lab-coated minions, a man in a full duct-tape tuxedo 
with stovepipe hat, a flock of bright yellow-feathered duck 
people, and a number of other folks whose costumes defy 
description. Nobody stopped me.

After locating Randi, I drifted back into the theater and 
spotted Emily Rosa and her parents. She marveled at my 
costume. Linda Rosa told me that the family had been 
requested not to come in costume as the Igsters wanted at 
least some people to be dressed normally. I agreed with this 
in principle, but felt it unfair to deny an 11-year-old a chance 
to dress up in whatever silly way she likes. So, I offered her 
my tiara, which she respectfully declined. 

Emily sparkled regardless in a smart spangled top and an 
"Ignitary" badge. She would be accepting the Science 
Education Ig on behalf of TT founder Dolores Krieger. I 
pondered the ways in which giving a keynote address at the 
Igs would further contribute to her science education, and I 
grinned wickedly.

This year's awards seemed deliberately designed to provoke 
the smiles of skeptics. Deepak Chopra, homeopathic 
researcher Jacques Benveniste, and Therapeutic Touch 
founder Dolores Krieger got Igged this year, and prominent 
skeptics Randi and Rosa were part of the festivities. Fresh 
from their appearance on John Stossel's ABC special "The 
Power of Belief" two days earlier, they were on stage as 
honored "Ignitaries" throughout the lively ceremony.

Benveniste won the 1998 Chemistry prize, making him the 
first double Ig winner in the history of the awards. His 
discovery that the information contained in homeopathic 
water can be transmitted over telephone lines and the Internet 
put him into a class of his own in the opinion of the Ig Nobel 
committee.

Chopra won the 1998 Physics Prize for his "unique 
interpretation of quantum physics as it applies to life, liberty, 
and the pursuit of economic happiness." (See also Skeptic, 
Volume 6, Number 2.) Krieger won the Science Education 
award for "demonstrating the merits of therapeutic touch, a 
method by which nurses manipulate the energy fields of 
ailing patients by carefully avoiding physical contact with 
those patients."

Randi, recovering well following a recent heart operation, 
gave a Heisenberg Certainty Lecture. Lecturers can speak on 
any topic they choose, so long as they finish in 30 seconds. 
Randi chose to speak about the still-unclaimed $1 million 
prize offered by his namesake educational foundation. "Do 
you hear anyone knocking at the door? Hark, I didn't think 
so. Come get your prize!" he roared from the podium. Ever 
the showman, he finished within the alloted time.

Jr. Skeptic cover girl Rosa, 11, came off with the winsome 
demeanor of an Alice in Wonderland, and earned a standing 
ovation from the crowd during her keynote address. She 
gracefully accepted the Science Education Ig on behalf of the 
absent Dolores Krieger. Krieger founded the practice of 
Therapeutic Touch, which Rosa authoritatively debunked in 
her now-famous experiment, the results of which were first 
published in Skeptic, and more prominently in the Journal of 
the American Medical Association.

"I learned a lot about science, and I only spent 10 dollars," 
she said during her keynote address to huge howls of 
approval from the crowd. Noting that Krieger founded TT in 
1972, Rosa said "Fifteen years before I was born, [she] was 
working on my first big break. I can't thank you enough, 
Dr. Krieger." (See Skeptic and Jr. Skeptic, Vol. 6,  No. 2 
for Emily's account of her new-found fame. and Larry 
Sarner's rebuttal to the numerous critcisms of Emily's 
research offered by pro-TT practitioners.)

The Ig ceremonies made for a deliciously strange evening 
that boasted a succession of pleasant weirdnesses. Attendees 
were greeted at the door with the world's largest roll of duck 
tape, as provided by Manco, "proud suppliers of Duck 
Tape." AIR editor Marc Abrahams, who bears a close-
enough resemblance to Groucho Marx (insert your own 
"Why a duck?" joke here) lorded over the silly proceedings 
in a tattered top hat, snappy tuxedo, and a duct tape bow tie 
you could park a bus on. The Harvard Marching band 
provided musical accompaniment, whether we wanted it or 
not. Scantily clad folks painted silver from head to toe and 
armed with flashlights prowled the stage to shed light on the 
situation.

A trippy slide show ran throughout, competing for attention 
with the madness on stage: Deepak Chopra. Deepak Chopra 
in a drawn-on bozo wig and red nose. The Pillsbury 
Doughboy on the halfshell. Rolls of duct tape mingled 
among asteroids. A man in a phone booth sinking into the 
sea as Benveniste earned his second chemistry Ig. Obi-Wan 
Kenobi telling Luke to use the force  which was, you 
guessed it, duct tape. 

The Nobel prize winners enjoyed themselves, despite the 
requisite mild humiliations.Richard Roberts, a former 
Studmuffin of Science, was on the block as the prize in the 
Win a Date with a Nobel Laureate lottery. He was awarded 
to a pair of girls who twinned themselves for the night in a 
shared duct-tape miniskirt. The squealing twosome, shod in 
heels, bounded artfully up the stage stairs to claim their 
prize. I'd have killed to know what was going through his 
mind at that moment. 

The genuine Nobelists were also pressed into service as the 
"children" of the lead singers in the duct-tape opera, and 
donated useless items to be auctioned off for the benefit of 
the Cambridge public schools. Keynote speaker and Ig 
winner Troy Hurtubise earned cheers from the crowd when 
he bid $100 for the discarded shopping lists of William 
Lipscomb.

Returning Ig winners Don and Nancy Featherstone, known 
for wearing matching outfits, wowed the crowd during the 
fashion show in an evening gown and tuxedo combination 
of Nancy's creation. Don escorted a sparkling Nancy in a 
real diamond necklace and matching earrings on one arm,
while he carried his Ig-winning creation, the plastic pink 
lawn flamingo, tucked under the other.

And of course there were paper airplanes. Lots and lots of 
paper airplanes of every shape and construction, arching 
through the air at all times. But this honored tradition got an 
unwelcome augmentation this year--some decided to ball up 
the duct tape and throw those as well. Unlike paper 
airplanes, duct-balls sting when they find their targets, and 
they have a nasty habit of sticking to one's lovely costume. 
There were reports that Randi was accidentally struck with a 
duct-ball and had to temporarily leave the stage. While I 
didn't see it happen, I did see Randi holding his head and I 
saw Abrahams offer him his top hat, ostensibly as a means 
of protection.

Casualties aside, everyone seemed to have a good time. And 
on the way out, everyone got their very own flat roll of duct 
tape.

"What are you going to be for Halloween?" Emily asked me 
the following day.

I just grinned.

"That was Halloween," I told her.

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The full list of 1998 winners follows:

SAFETY ENGINEERING: Troy Hurtubise, of North Bay, 
Ontario, Canada, for developing and personally testing a suit 
of armor that is impervious to grizzly bears.

BIOLOGY: Peter Fong of Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, 
Pennsylvania, for contributing to the happiness of clams by 
giving them Prozac.

PEACE: Prime Minister Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee of India 
and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan for their 
aggressively peaceful explosions of atomic bombs.

CHEMISTRY: Jacques Benveniste of France for his 
homeopathic discovery that not only does water have 
memory, but that the information can be transmitted over 
telephone lines and the Internet. [Benveniste also won the 
1991 Ig Nobel Chemistry Prize.]

SCIENCE EDUCATION: Dolores Krieger, Professor 
Emerita, New York University, for demonstrating the merits 
of therapeutic touch, a method by which nurses manipulate 
the energy fields of ailing patients by carefully avoiding 
contact with those patients.

STATISTICS: Jerald Bain of Mt. Sinai Hospital in Toronto 
and Kerry Siminoski of the University of Alberta for their 
carefully measured report, The Relationship Among Height, 
Penile Length, and Foot Size.

PHYSICS: Deepak Chopra of The Chopra Center for Well 
Being, La Jolla, California, for his unique interpretation of 
quantum physics as it applies to life, liberty, and the pursuit 
of economic happiness.

ECONOMICS: Richard Seed of Chicago for his efforts to 
stoke up the world economy by cloning himself and other 
human beings.

MEDICINE: To Patient Y and to his doctors, Caroline Mills, 
Meirion Llewelyn, David Kelly, and Peter Holt, of Royal 
Gwent Hospital, in Newport, Wales, for the cautionary 
medical report, "A Man Who Pricked His Finger and 
Smelled Putrid for 5 Years."

LITERATURE: Dr. Mara Sidoli of Washington, D.C., for 
her illuminating report, "Farting as a Defence Against 
Unspeakable Dread."

The AIR web site is at www.improbable.com. Its e-mail 
address is air@improbable.com.

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