toronto-varsity-01062000.html University of Toronto
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Science & Technology
Web posted on Thursday, January 6, 2000

Funny, informative, funny, educational and funny

The Annals of Improbable Research recognises the goofier side of science

By Joe Wilson 

Ig Nobel Prize winners

Electro-ejaculation is difficult to perform on the rhinoceros. And now, as Marc Abrahams from the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) predicted, I should have your attention. This very opening line was used in a real scientific paper by a biologist studying rhinoceros reproduction. He is one of the many wacky scientists featured in the AIR's satirical science journal, and one of many recipients of an Ig Nobel Prize, awarded for "research which cannot or should not be reproduced." 

U of T's last physics colloquium of the millennium featured Marc Abrahams, the editor of the AIR journal. The old stereotype of the stodgy scientist that takes himself and his work way too seriously is pleasantly deconstructed here. Abrahams threw scrap paper into the crowd and encouraged people to throw paper airplanes and heckle his seminar. All in good fun, of course, and firmly rooted in science (sort of). Abrahams took us on an overview of this year's Ig Nobel Prize winners and explained the AIR's place in the greater scientific community: "the Mad Magazine of science journals." 

The organization publishes a journal self-described as "a journal for inflated research and personalities." It features "genuine and concocted research from the world's most and least distinguished scientists and science writers." There are many false but funny studies such as "Does a cat really land on its feet all the time?" There are university cafeteria food reviews complete with "ratings from i to π" (either the food is only good in your imagination [i] or is considered roundly good [π]). The ultimate highlight, though, has to be the "AIR's Annual Swim-Suit Issue" featuring many bearded men in tight swimwear. 

Then there are the real studies that are actually stranger than their fictional counterparts. One study details the woes of a lonely sailor having the only documented case of gonorrhea contracted through a blow-up doll. The AIR's Ig Nobel awards are similar to the Darwin Awards, given to the losers of Darwin's battle for the survival of the fittest. The difference is that the AIR actually has scientists to confirm the authenticity of the research. The guy who won a Darwin Award a few years back for strapping a jet engine to his Chevy was merely a figment of an MIT student's imagination. 

Abrahams challenges readers to try and tell the difference between the obscure papers they have dug up and the ones they have made up. Many teachers across Ontario subscribe to the journal to teach their students the scientific method. Some of the articles, indeed, aside from being quite silly, have profound results. Peter Fong from Gettysburg College has been experimenting with giving Prozac to clams. Aside from winning an Ig Nobel prize in 1998, he has found that it acts as a powerful aphrodisiac for shellfish (and thus, I suppose, increases their happiness). Takeshi Makino from Safety Taneisha in Japan has invented the "S-Check," a spray for wives that, once used on a husband's underwear, can immediately show if he has been unfaithful. Dr. Makino encourages Americans to go underwear-free from now on. 

Every year the AIR holds an awards ceremony at Sanders Theatre at Harvard where they give out the Ig Nobel Prizes. They put on skits and ballets such as 1997's "Interpretive Dance of the Electron" found in the original opera "Il Kaboom Grosso" (The Big Bang). It features real Nobel prize recipients such as Dudley Herschbach (Chem '86) and William Lipscomb (Chem '76). They have special events like a contest for making the most attractive duct-tape clothing and (the highlight of the evening) "Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobel-Laureate." 

The society invites all of its Ig Nobel recipients to the ceremony and this year, for the first time, everyone came. That is, except the recipients of this year's special prize, awarded to the Kansas and Colorado state school boards, for banning evolution from the curriculum. Abrahams assures us that the situation is under control: the AIR sent some people down to a school board meeting dressed in gorilla suits with a complementary basket of bananas. 

Clips from AIR ceremonies, full papers and other funny (and marginally scientific) paraphernalia can be found at: www.improbable.com.
 


Copyright © 2000 Varsity Publications, Inc.