The 1998 Ig Nobel Prizes
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Fri, 23 Oct 98 20:20:00 -0700
Subject: The 1998 Ig Nobel Prizes
[ The Ig Nobel Prizes have come and gone once again. If you're interested,
there are lots of accounts available of this wonderfully sarcastic,
iconoclastic, even though-provoking event. Here's a list from the "On the
AIR" web page at <http://www.improbable.com/ontheair/press/press-home.html>.
The list is followed by an excerpt of the third article in this list...
HAVING FUN IS IG NOBEL ENDEAVOR, Arizona Republic, 21 Oct, 1998.
A Fine Time at the Ig Nobels
RoboCop, Pseudotherapy, and Penile Length: The 1998 Ig Nobel Prizes
IgNobel Voyage: The Horror, the Horror, Netsurfer Digest, 20 Oct, 1998.
The prizes that the scientific establishment await each year..., New
Scientist, 17 Oct, 1998.
AIR IgNobel Preise 1998: Im Zeichen der Ente, Die Zeit [in German],
15 Oct, 1998.
Clams on Prozac, an Opera about Duct Tape..., Harvard Gazette, 15 Oct, 1998.
Duct Tape Celebrated at Ig Nobel Ceremony, The [MIT] Tech, 13 Oct, 1998.
Smelly finger research upholds British honour
A Lavish Presentation Ceremony, The Guardian (London), 12 Oct, 1998.
BAD SCIENCE AND HUMOROUS RESEARCH SKEWERED AT THE IG NOBEL AWARDS,
Skeptics List, Oct, 1998.
Nobel prize spoofs given for weird science, WLVI-TV Channel 56, 9 Oct, 1998.
French scientist shrugs off winning his second Ig Nobel prize,
Nature, 8 Oct, 1998.
For his efforts, Chopra takes Ig Nobel Prize, San Diego
Union-Tribune, 8 Oct, 1998.
Researcher Proves Scientists Are Funny. Some of Them., New York
Times, 6 Oct, 1998.
Blindsided by Science, Wired News</a>, 5 Oct, 1998.
The IgNobel prize, awarded for genuine yet barmy, Sunday Telegraph
[London], 4 Oct,1998.
Lessons from Seat of Learning, The Scotsman [Glasgow], 27 Sept, 1998.
Want to be Superman?: Inventor has the suit, The Montreal Gazette, 22
Nature is usually the first..., New Scientist, Aug 29, 1998.
_NETSURFER DIGEST #04.31 SPECIAL FEATURE_
RoboCop, Pseudotherapy, and Penile Length: The 1998 Ig Nobel Prizes
by Lawrence Nyveen
Tuesday, 20 October, 1998
We have reporters who earn the label "intrepid". We sent one eager scribe
to this year's Eighth First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony. Despite
obstacles and his own incompetence, he made it. Here is his story.
The first thing noted by anyone entering the 1998 edition of the Ig Nobel
Prizes was James "The Amazing" Randi's flaming white beard, glowing
seemingly brightly enough to light the room, beaming out from a phalanx of
seated dignitaries, almost all dressed in lab coats and numbering four
(real) Nobel laureates among them. Next was a Cat-in-the-Hat hat sticking
up out of the second row. A man dressed in full catcher's gear and then some
anchored an end of the first row.
To the side of the stage nearest the VIPs, a man dressed scalp to toe in
silver paint and not much else held a flashlight and served as a human
spotlight. Somehow, he blended in with the riotous stage decorations, as
did his similarly camouflaged female counterpart on the other side of the
stage, whom I did not spot until a few minutes later.
I was late, and missed most of the introductions, but I caught the end of
a parade of artwork from the Museum of Bad Art, the last of a series of
dignitaries and delegations, and watched it slowly disappear into the crowd
as paraders took their seats.
All settled down - relatively - and someone introduced the evening's host,
Marc Abrahams, who strode to the podium amid a flight of poorly aerodynamic
paper airplanes. As one of the aforementioned Nobel laureates would later
remark, it's amazing that in a room full of Harvard students (and faculty),
no one could build a paper airplane that flies.
Marc Abrahams earned the role of host because he put this Ig Nobel ceremony
together. He edits the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), a paper mag that
covers the best, worst, and most bizarre in science - genuine and fake.
AIR awards the Ig Nobel Prizes to individuals whose achievements "cannot or
should not be reproduced" in a ceremony held each year, though Marc later
verbally added a more accurate explanation: the awards reward the unusual
in science that make you think. With this motive, AIR will usually award
the Ig Nobels to individuals in one of two camps, either those with wacky
(and I don't use that term lightly) ideas that reveal truth or those with
false concepts that reveal the wacky.
The ceremony took place in Sanders Theatre on the Harvard campus in
Cambridge, Mass. The room started off noisy and increased in volume
throughout the evening. Many in the audience, if not most, seemed to have
done this before and they chimed in with litanical responses as VIPs were
introduced. The whole thing appeared to be a complex inside joke - a lot
like a midnight showing of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show", including
audience members/participants in costume.
The pre-award festivities owed much to the evening's theme. This edition of
the Ig Nobels celebrated duct tape, not least, we suppose, because Manco -
makers of Duck Tape duct tape - sponsored the event. That would explain the
huge roll of duct tape - five and a half miles of it - out in the lobby.
As the last of a flock of wooden duck weather vanes (and one roll of,
presumably, Duck Tape duct tape) flew along a wire from balcony to stage,
Marc introduced the "studmuffin of duct tape", Manco Senior Category Manager
Angelo Ritson. Angelo, splendid in a tweed jacket with duct tape elbow
patches and liner, received one of the evening's loudest welcomes - eerily
prescient, as it turned out, for at the conclusion of his speech, Angelo
would drop his pants to reveal polka-dot, duct tape boxer shorts.
The guy in the Cat-in-the-Hat hat approached the podium next. Let's see:
Cat-in-the-Hat; duct tape; science. Of course! This had to be Lawrence
Berkeley scientist Max Sherman, come to fill us in on his famous duct tape
research in Dr. Seussian rhyme and cadence. You may have read that Max and
colleagues discovered that duct tape is a great adhesive for everything,
except ducts. Netsurfer is proud to bring you a Web exclusive scoop: the
full text of Max's speech.
Lest we should have left Sanders Theatre fulfilled mentally but yearning
for the gladiatorial contests of yore, Nobel laureates Sheldon Glashow
(Physics 1979), Dudley Herschbach (Chemistry 1986), William Lipscomb
(Chemistry 1976), and Richard Roberts (Medicine 1993) tested the tensile
strength of duct tape via the tug-of-war method after Max's presentation.
In a two-on-two match, the duct tape lost.
With the introductory theme events out of the way, the show got down to what
loosely can be called business with the awarding of the Ig Nobel Prizes.
The first recipient, Troy Hurtubise of North Bay, Ont., took the prize for
safety engineering. Troy, subject and star of the documentary "Project
Grizzly", won for the Ursus Mk VI, the protective suit that inspired that
Before Troy spoke, we in the audience watched clips from the film. You know
how slapstick TV shows (Monty Python, Benny Hill, etc.) will use
rubber-limbed dummies to simulate dangerous stunts like falling off cliffs,
getting hit by cars, etc? Troy, in his suit, went through just those trials
while testing the Ursus. Huge logs swinging down from 40 feet caught him
under the chin. Bikers with baseball bats beat the tar out of him. A helper
swung a pickaxe at his chest. A pickup truck at 50 km/h repeatedly rammed
him and sent him spinning across a field. It's as funny as it is awesome
and no one doubts that Troy in the Ursus Mk VI can withstand the assault of
a ticked-off grizzly, which after all was the goal of the project.
In his everpresent buckskin jacket - he also wore it in the movie and to
the next day's Ig Nobel lectures and film presentations - Troy gave, in a
backwoods Ontario accent, the most philosophical speech we'd hear that
night. The suit stood to one side, putting the guy in catching gear to shame
and probably inspiring no small amount of envy.
Troy built the suit out of metal mail, titanium, a rubber compound, and,
coincidentally, 7,630 feet of duct tape. Troy said duct tape was the only
thing he found that would both bond to the titanium and provide a substrate
for the liquid rubber.
At first, you can't help but feel Troy is - well, a bit of a weirdo, but
the more you hear him give his polished pitch, the more you understand the
worthiness of his work. Take a look at Troy Hurtubise, Grizzly RoboCop for
a closer look at his past and his potentially amazing future.
Marc nominally awarded the next Ig Nobel, in science education, to Dolores
Krieger "for demonstrating the merits of therapeutic touch, a method by
which nurses supposedly manipulate the energy fields of ailing patients by
carefully avoiding physical contact with those patients." Dolores founded
the therapeutic touch method/movement, in which practitioners use hands and
crystals to manipulate the "human energy fields" of subjects, thereby
healing them. Therapeutic touch uses neither traditional therapy nor touch.
Dolores didn't show up to receive her prize, which was just as well since
11-year-old Emily Rosa, who accepted the award on her behalf, was the true
focus of the honor and applause. Emily received a standing ovation as she
took the Ig Nobel trophy from Marc.
Emily, you see, co-authored a paper in the Journal of the American Medical
Association (JAMA) that debunked a basic principle of therapeutic touch,
that practitioners can detect any human energy field. As a school science
project, Emily tested whether or not they could blindly detect the energy
field of Emily's own hand by asking them to "feel" over which of their hands
Emily held her own. They could not. Emily expanded her research and with
some guidance published her findings in JAMA.
After Emily sat back down with her prize package - a wooden trophy with a
plastic duck and a roll of duct tape, a plastic harmonica, two more rolls
of duct tape, and an autographed copy of "The Best of Annals of Improbable
Research" (Marc Abrahams, ed.) - in hand, the first of the night's
Heisenberg Certainty Lectures got underway. Don Barrett, the man in the
catcher's gear, enforced each lecture's strict 30-second time limit. The
Heisenberg speeches strewn throughout the rest of the evening featured the
talents of James Randi among others, but the most important thing I learned
from them is that the wave isn't any less annoying when geeks do it than it
is at the ballpark.
Peter Kramer, author of "Listening to Prozac", accepted the next award on
behalf of Peter Fong, who won for "contributing to the happiness of clams
by giving them Prozac." In layman's terms, Peter and his colleagues
discovered that if you put Prozac in a tank of fingernail clams, the
mollusks spew forth babies. "They gave their lives for research," Peter said
for Peter, "but at least they got to have sex first."
Hoping to avoid any post-clam lull, duct tape once again grabbed center
stage with a fashion show. Do you know Don Featherstone? You should. He won
the 1996 Ig Nobel in Art for his invention of the plastic flamingo, and he
and wife Nancy have also climbed to the top in the field of duct tape
supermodelling. All clothing in this show contained a significant percentage
of duct tape, and highlights included a slick, stainproof "intern suit" with
built it electronic newsgathering and a pair of anti-flatulence pants. It's
amazing what they can do these days with flexible ducts and duct tape.
The Ig Nobels made history that night, as an award went to the first ever
repeat winner. Jacques Benveniste further affirmed his fame as he became
the first ever person to twice not bother showing up to get his Ig Nobel.
No matter. Dudley Herschbach and James Randi accepted the Prize for
Chemistry on Jacques's behalf.
Jacques first won the chemistry Prize in 1991 for his supposed discovery
that water molecules retain the memory of a solute long after the solution
has been diluted to such a degree that, according to Randi, "you'd have to
drink 12 swimming pools of water just to ingest one molecule (of solute)."
This claim forms the basis for homeopathy, a process by which suckers pay
plenty o' bucks for tiny vials of water which provide no better than
This year, Jacques won for discovering that the sound of said dilute water
can heal just as well as the water itself (and with that, all agree).
Furthermore, if you record the sound, save it as a computer file, and e-mail
the file, the recipient can play the file and experience healing. Douglas
Herschbach showed up with his own encoded sound of healing water and played
it for the audience - let's just say all were flushed with anticipation.
Talk about marketing schemes!
Curiously, before the cermony could resume, the four (real) Nobel laureates
were brought to center stage and shod in extremely large clown shoes. Why
became apparent as Marc announced the next winners amid peals of laughter.
Jerry Bain accepted the Ig Nobel for Statistics for himself and colleague
Kerry Siminoski for their paper, "The Relationship Among Height, Penile
Length, and Foot Size". The doctors found a weak relationship, no doubt to
the relief of the 5'5" Jerry and his size 7-1/2 shoes.
Richard Seed, another scientist you may have heard of, took the Ig Nobel in
Economics "for his efforts to stoke up the world economy by cloning himself
and other human beings." Richard would have liked to attend the ceremony in
person, but was in Ireland - inadvertently setting up an anonymous heckler
with the Heckle of the Night: "Give him a year and he'll do both at once."
Richard's son Randall Seed took the Prize instead, and spoke on the effects
of nature and nurture in growing a human being. Coming down on the side of
nurture, Randall said a clone of his father could never grow up to be
another Richard, since he and his brothers would inflict on that clone all
the tortures their father inflicted on them.
The rest of the evening's awards went to a broad spectrum of movers,
shakers, and quacks, none of whom showed up. Deepak Chopra took the Physics
prize "for his unique interpretation of quantum physics as it applies to
life, liberty, and the pursuit of economic happiness." Mara Sidoli missed
her chance to bask in the glory of a personally awarded Ig Nobel in
literature for her wind and ground breaking Journal of Analytical Psychology
opus, "Farting as a defence against unspeakable dread".
Speaking of explosions and odor - in order - Prime Minister Shri Atal Bihari
Vajpayee of India and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan shared the
1998 Ig Nobel Peace Prize for their "aggressively peaceful explosions of
atomic bombs." In Wales, Patient Y and his doctors shared the medicine Prize
for "A man who pricked his finger and smelled putrid for five years". Poor
Patient Y had "a putrid smell emanating from the affected arm, which could
be detected across a large room, and when confined to a smaller examination
room became almost intolerable." None of the involved flew the Atlantic to
accept, but the lead author's cousin, a Harvard undergrad, presented himself
in their place with the good news that Patient Y's personal Hell had in fact
been eventually cured.
Two events occupied most of the latter half of the Ig Nobel ceremony, a
three-act operetta called "La Forza del Duct Tape" and an auction that
suprisingly turned out to be one of the most entertaining parts of the
evening. Each of the (real) Nobel laureates present donated a personal
collection of objects for the charity auction. William Lipscombe provided
a bunch of used shopping lists, Sheldon Glashow contributed a heap of cigar
butts, Richard Roberts selected a pile of rejected junk mail, and Martin
Perl offered a variety of used chewing gum.
Everyone in the audience knew the shopping lists were genuine, because a
slide show showed Lipscombe shopping. I don't know if this will show up in
the eventual Netcast, but watching the lab-coated Lipscombe farce his way
through a shopping trip was worth the price of admission, even for people
who couldn't scam their way into a free press pass.
Bidding began on the gum and slowly made its way to a final bid of $20.
Lipscombe's lists had slowly risen to $40 when a sharp bark of $100 echoed
through the theater and silenced the crowd. It took a moment for people to
realize Troy Hurtubise had made that bid, after which the auctioneer deemed
the shopping lists sold.
Fueled with enthusiasm, bidders took the price of the cigar butts up to $109
before rationality (not to mention rationalism) once again took hold of the
crowd. Few bids for the junk mail led the auctioneer to halt bidding after
a "nice, clear, enunciated $30."
The ceremony drew to a close with the final act of "La Forza del Duct Tape",
in which Geraldo (not the real one) runs away with the wife and venture
capitalist investor of the man who invented duct tape while his children
(played by Nobel laureates) wrap him up in his invention. The concluding
number, to the tune of Beethoven's Ode to Joy, invited audience
participation, though we in the audience needed some prompting to take part.
That, in a nutshell, is an Ig Nobel ceremony. Other online press includes
an excellent ABC News article and local Boston outlets.
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© 1998 Peter Langston