Sci Am: 1994 Annual Ig Nobel Prizes

from the December 1994 issue of Scientific American:

The Annual Ig Nobel Prizes

The Annual Ig Nobel Prizes: This year's winners are, well, just as pathetic as last year's.

If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, it might follow that vast amounts of knowledge concentrated in one place are downright hazardous. Evidence for such a conclusion could be found at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this past October, when a good portion of America's scientific elite, including three bona fide Nobel laureates, cringed through an evening of ear mites, constipation and threats of eternal damnation. Yes, it was time once again for the awarding of the Ig Nobel Prizes.

Some 1,200 spectators jammed M.I.T.'s Kresge Auditorium to witness the "Fourth First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony." They also ogled real Nobelists William Lipscomb (Chemistry, 1976), Dudley Herschbach (Chemistry, 1986) and Richard Roberts (Medicine or Physiology, 1993), who were somehow persuaded to take part in the proceedings.

Unlike the awards won by these exemplary scientists, the Ig Nobel Prizes go to individuals "whose achievements cannot or should not be reproduced," according to the official program. A joint production of the "Annals of Improbable Research" (described by some as the "Mad" magazine of science) and the M.I.T. Museum, the Igs take their name from the "legendary Ignatius (Ig) Nobel, co-inventor of soda pop," allegedly a distant relative of TNT inventor Alfred, who founded those other prizes. Whereas proof of Ig's existence might be hard to document, the Igs are awarded to real people, embarrassed though they may feel, for real work, embarrassing though it may be.

The evening got off to a rocky start with the first Ig, for Biology, awarded to the authors of "The Constipated Serviceman: Prevalence among Deployed U.S. Troops," which appeared in "Military Medicine" in 1993. W. Brian Sweeney, one of the writers, showed up to receive the Ig, a gold-painted, wax brain hemisphere. "I'd like to acknowledge all of our wonderful U.S. servicemen," he said, "who were willing to become constipated for the country. Thre were various theories as to why constipation occurs, until it was pointed out to me by one of the marines in the field. He said, 'Doc, let me tell you. When we're out in the field, we're scared s--less.'"

Patient X, who refused to be named, won the Medicine Ig for his attempt to use electroshock to neutralize venom after he had been bitten by his pet rattlesnake. The juice came from a car engine revved to 3,000 rpm for five minutes. It was applied through sparkplug wires attached to Patient X's lip. X shared the award with the authors of a medical report of the incident, "Failure of Electric Shock Treatment for Rattlesnake Envenomation," published in the "Annals of Emergency Medicine." In a taped message, co-author Richard C. Dart of the Rocky Mountain Poison Center said, "I was stunned to receive the 1994 Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine, although not as shocked as our patient."

Veterinarian Robert A. Lopez took the Entomology Ig for his brave and successful attempts to find out whether ear mites from cats can inflict damage on humans. He did this by inserting mites into his own ears, not once, not twice but three times. Lopez's chilling report was published in the "Journal of the American Veterinary Society." At a post-Ig gathering, Lopez elaborated on his actions: "Somebody's got to be crazy enough to do it. Hey."

Former Texas state senator Bob Glasgow copped the Ig in Chemistry for his sponsorship of a 1989 drug-control law that would make it illegal to purchase laboratory glassware without a permit. Accepting for him was one Tim Mitchell, a representative of Corning. Rather than a total ban on glassware, Mitchell suggested a "five-day cooling-off period." He admitted, however, that beakers and test tubes can start a habit that might leave one "strung out, begging for grant money."

The awards were interrupted periodically for Heisenberg Certainty Lectures (named for that pillar of modern physics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle), delivered by the real Nobel laureates and other honored guests. The certanty: no lecture lasts more than 30 seconds, or a black-clad referee whistles the speaker off the stage. Artificial-intelligence maven Marvin Minsky barely finished his comments, but Lipscomb wrapped up his address with plenty of time to spare. "The following statement of the Heisenberg Certainty Principle is dedicated to the U.S. Congress," Lipscomb began. "If your position is everywhere, your momentum is zero," he concluded.

One of last year's winners, Harvard University's John Mack, had been asked to deliver the keynote address, but he backed out. Mack won the 1993 Psychology Ig for his theory that people who believe they were abducted by aliens probably were "We're disappointed and hurt" over Mack's absence, said Ig master of ceremonies Marc Abrahams, "but above all, we're concerned."

The evening's final Ig, for Mathematics, went to the Southern Baptist Church of Alabama, for "their county-by-county estimate of how many Alabama citizens will go to hell if they don't repent." The Honorable Terje Korsnes, consul of Norway, accepted the Ig on behalf of the people of Hell, a little town in Norway. "We have a special place in Hell for all of you," Korsnes said.

During the apres-Ig celebration, Minsky summed up his impressions of the ceremony. "It's one of my principles that if I have a complex experience that lasts a couple of hours, I can never think of any few silly words to describe it," he stated. "So, I think it's bad to summarize.

-- Steve Mirsky
BOX: And the other 1994 Ig Nobel Prize winners are:

Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore. Winner of the Ig in Psychology for his 30-year study of the effects of negative reinforcement, namely, the punishing of the citizens of Singapore "whenever they spat, chewed gum, or fed pigeons."

The Japanese Meteorological Agency. Awarded the Physics Ig Nobel "for its seven-year study of whether earthquakes are caused by catfish wiggling their tails."

L. Ron Hubbard. Recipient of the Ig in Literature "for his crackling Good Book, "Dianetics," which is highlyprofitable to mankind or to a portion thereof."

Chile's Juan Pablo Davila, former employee of the state-owned company Codelco. Davila's Ig in Economics was awarded for instructing his computer to "buy" when he meant "sell." The ultimate consequence was the loss of 0.5 percent of the gross national product. In Chile "davilar" is now a verb meaning "to botch things up royally."

John Hagelin of Maharishi University and the Institute of Science, Technology and Public Policy. Winner of the Ig Nobel Peace Prize "for his experimental conclusion that 4,000 trained meditators caused an 18 percent decrease in violent crime in Washington, D.C."

-- Mervin Stykes


SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN December 1994 Volume 271 Number 6 Page 22

Scientific American (ISSN 0036-8733), published monthly by Scientific American, Inc., 415 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017-1111. Copyright 1994 by Scientific American, Inc. All rights reserved. Except for one-time personal use, no part of any issue may be reproduced by any mechanical, photographic or electronic process, or in the form of a phonographic recording, nor may it be stored in a retrieval system, transmitted or otherwise copied for public or private use without written permission of the publisher. For information regarding back issues, reprints or permissions, E-mail [email protected]
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