The Ig Nobel Prize

By Karen Hopkin
Special to

The 1,200 members of the audience searched anxiously through their programs to see if they'd won. With a shout of joy, a set of Siamese twins (actually two women wrapped together in a skirt made of duct tape) raced to the stage to grab Rich Roberts -- their prize in this year's win-a-date-with-a-Nobel- laureate contest.

If that sounds odd, you've never attended an Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony. The annual event is a farce-filled parody of the Nobel prizes that honor great achievements in scientific research.

Awarded by a scientific humor magazine called the Annals of Improbable Research, the Ig Nobel prizes celebrate the sillier side of science by recognizing research that "cannot and should not be reproduced," says Marc Abrahams, emcee of the event and the magazine's editor.

Stand-Up Scientists

Over the course of the evening, scientists poke fun at their research -- and themselves -- in a show that proves that even brainiacs have a sense of humor.

In addition to the awards presentation, the elaborate extravaganza featured a three-act opera honoring the discovery and uses of duct tape, and an auction in which grocery lists used by a legitimate Nobel laureate -- William Lipscomb, Chemistry '76 -- sold for $100.

Throughout the evening, laughter filled the air at Harvard's Sanders Theatre, as did countless paper airplanes and wads of duct tape, one of which left a welt on the forehead of James "Amazing" Randi, the world's leading debunker of pseudoscientific research.

This year's ceremony -- co-sponsored by Manco, Inc., the makers of Duck Brand duct tape -- included voluminous tributes to the all-purpose gray adhesive strip.

That didn't stop engineer Max Sherman from flying in from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to rain on the duct tape parade. Sherman and his colleagues tested the durability of duct tape on, well, ducts. Their conclusion: "Duct tape is good for lots of things, just not for wrapping ducts," he says.

A Lot of No-Shows

Despite that worthy find, Sherman didn't take home an Ig Nobel prize. But 10 others did. Two winners accepted their accolades in person, but the rest could not (or would not) attend.

Among the no-shows were Ig recipients Deepak Chopra, quantum healer; Richard Seed, champion of human cloning; and the prime ministers of India and Pakistan, who were awarded the coveted Peace Prize "for their aggressively peaceful explosions of atomic bombs."

Also notably absent was Jacques Benveniste, the first two-time Ig winner. The French chemist received the 1991 Ig Nobel prize in chemistry for his discovery that water can remember biological molecules that have once been dissolved in it -- the cornerstone of homeopathic medicine.

This year, Benveniste took home the chemistry Ig for his follow-up study showing that not only does water have memory, but that this information is digitally encoded and can be transmitted over telephone lines and the Internet.

"I was initially skeptical of his new work," commented Nobel laureate Dudley Herschbach (Chemistry, '86). But then Herschbach did his own study with water that once interacted with biological material. His results, captured on audio tape, sounded remarkably like a toilet flushing. Herschbach even did Benveniste one better, carefully repeating his experiments in two independent lavatories.

No Light Touch

An Ig for science education this year went to Dolores Krieger, professor emeritus of New York University, for her work demonstrating the merits of therapeutic touch. Her award was accepted by Emily Rosa, the 11-year-old Colorado student who debunked the theory in an article in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Troy Hurtubise of North Bay, Ontario -- the guy who dropped the C-note for Lipscomb's shopping lists -- took home an Ig in safety engineering for developing and testing a suit of armor impervious to grizzly bears.

The entrepreneur was attacked by a grizzly when he was 18 and has been working toward understanding the beasts ever since. Despite his intense claustrophobia, Hurtubise has spent a dozen years testing these suits -- even getting rammed by a pickup truck traveling at 50 mph to simulate the force of a grizzly attack.

At a post-Ig lecture at Harvard on Friday, Hurtubise unveiled the next generation of grizzly suit, a model he calls the G Man Genesis. The new suit, made of a new alloy stronger but lighter than titanium, can withstand temperatures reaching 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit and can't be stopped by an AK-47.

Robocop Gets Dethroned

"The G Man makes Robocop look like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz," says the designer. By selling the suits -- to fire departments, riot squads and volcanologists -- Hurtubise hopes to make enough money to get back to studying, and maybe preserving, wild grizzlies. "I have to give my life to the bear, because the bear let me have my life."

Fellow Canadian Jerald Bain, professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, also won an Ig Nobel, for a study Inspired by an insulting jest from his mother-in-law. Bain's research found a moderate correlation between height, penile length and shoe size -- an effort that earned him this year's prize in statistics.

Finally, this year's biology prize went to Peter Fong of Gettysburg College, a man who fed Prozac to clams. The treatment seems to make the mollusks happy -- at least happy enough to reproduce. Prozac boosts the levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, a chemical event that induces spawning in clams.

"It's nice to be recognized," Fong said by phone from his office in Pennsylvania. "But it's not something I think I'll put on my CV."

In his acceptance note -- read at the ceremony by Peter Kramer, author of Listening to Prozac -- Fong thanked the clams. "They gave their lives for research," he said. "But at least they got to have sex first."

Each of the attendees, however, just got a roll of duct tape.

Submitted By: Bruce Mackey
Oct 20, 1998 07:28

This joke is rated: G