Scientific American, December 195
You May Already Be a Wiener

The Ig Nobel Prizes surprise again

On October 6 in greater Boston, two perennial tragedies
played themselves out. At Fenway Park, the Red Sox lost
to Cleveland, making it 77 years in a row without a
World Championship. At Harvard University, the fifth
First Annual Ig Nobel Prizes were announced.

The Igs, as they are fondly called by those who do not
win them, are awarded to "individuals whose achievements
cannot or should not be reproduced," according to the
sponsors, among them the Annals of Improbable
Research. Some 500 people who couldn't find a date on a
Friday night watched the ceremony at Harvard's Lowell
Lecture Hall, joined by five actual, honest-to-goodness
Nobel laureates, who awarded the Igs: Sheldon Glashow
(physics, 1979), Dudley Herschbach (chemistry, 1986),
Joseph Murray (physiology or medicine, 1990), Richard
Roberts (physiology or medicine, 1993) and William
Lipscomb (chemistry, 1976). Lipscomb doubled as a member
of the orchestra, revealing considerable ability as a
clarinetist. "I can get a relief from the way my brain
always works on science," he said of his playing-a
description that may also explain his annual presence at
the Igs.

This year's theme was DNA, or "deoxyribowhatever," as a
slide informed the audience. Twelve-year-old Kate
Eppers, allegedly the spokesperson for Kids for DNA,
delivered a position statement. "My favorite singer is
Mariah Carey," she explained. "She's really, really
beautiful and a really good singer. If it weren't for
DNA, she'd be a fish or something. So that's why I think
DNA is great."
 
The first Ig of the evening, the Nutrition prize, went
to John Martinez of J.  Martinez & Company for the
creation of Luak Coffee-the most expensive in the
world-made from beans ingested and excreted by the luak,
a bobcatlike native of Indonesia. Mart inez accepted
with a poem, the last stanza of which read, "Luak, luak,
after you've gorged/ A new taste sensation though has
been forged/We're all gathered here, this is the
scoop/We're drinking coffee made from your poop." The
Nobelists sampled the brew, which Herschbach promptly
spit into a handy ice bucket.

The Medicine Ig went to the researchers who published
"The Effects of Unilateral Forced Nostril Breathing on
Cognition" in the International Journal of
Neuroscience. This decision forced the awarding
committee to fall back on the Literature prize for the
authors of an article in the journal Surgery entitled
"Rectal Foreign Bodies: Case Reports and a Comprehensive
Review of the World's Literature." The items physicians
documented removing from various patients included a
magazine, the identity of which this reporter was too
apprehensive to attempt to discover.

A Japanese research team won the Psychology Ig for
turning pigeons into art students. Their paper,
"Pigeons' Discrimination of Paintings by Monet and
Picasso," appeared in the Journal of the Experimental
Analysis of Behavior.  No word yet on whether t he birds
can distinguish between Monet and Manet.

Along with the awarding of Igs, the ceremony featured
the Heisenberg Certainty Lectures, named for the
Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which describes
limitations of knowledge about position and velocity of
elementary particles. Because quantum mec hanics on the
macroscopic level collapses to automechanics, the hosts
of National Public Radio's popular "Car Talk," Tom and
Ray Magliozzi, also known as Click and Clack, gave a
Heisenberg: "Is it possible for two people who don't
know what they're talking about to know less than one
person who doesn't?"

Nobelist Roberts apparently regarded that question as a
challenge. "I have an amazing discovery about certain
DNA, cDNA, which is made by copying RNA," he said in his
allotted half-minute. "Now, RNA contains four bases: A,
C, G and U. If C stands for certain, then U must be
uncertain. Since base pairing says that C is opposite G,
then G must be uncertain, too. Thus, in RNA, both G and
U are uncertain. With all this uncertainty about RNA, no
wonder DNA decided to become the genetic material."

Last year's Entomology winner, Robert Lopez, who proved
that cats' ear mites could attack human ears by
experimenting on himself, delivered the keynote address:
"Dare to Be Bold." Lopez tried to quell fears about
American health care. "Don't worry ab out germs and
bugs," he said. "If your time ain't come, not even a
doctor can kill you."

The final Ig, for Chemistry, went to designer Bijan
Pakzad for DNA Cologne and DNA Perfume, neither of which
contains any DNA and both of which come in
triple-helix-shaped bottles. James Watson commented on
tape, saying that Francis Crick, codiscover er of the
structure of DNA, always said that an idea was good if
it smelled right. "The double helix smelt right," Watson
noted. "I have to ask now, Would the double helix have
received a better reception if on the manuscript we sent
off we had spray ed DNA Perfume? I don't think so. My
feeling is, if you want to succeed in science, don't
smell."  -Steve Mirsky

And Those Other Ig Winners Are...

ECONOMICS Awarded jointly to Nick Leeson and his
superiors at Barings Bank and to Robert Citron of Orange
County, California, for using the calculus of
derivatives to prove that every financial institution
has its limits.

PEACE The Taiwan National Parliament, for demonstrating
that politicians gain ore by punching, kicking and
gouging one another than by waging war against other
nations.

PUBLIC HEALTH Martha Kold Bakkevig of Sintef Unimed in
Trondheim, Norway, and Ruth Nielson of the Technical
University of Denmark, for their study "Impact of Wet
Underwear on Thermoregulatory Responses and Thermal
Comfort in the Cold," published in Ergonomics.

PHYSICS D.M.R. Georget, R. Parker and A. C. Smith of the
Institute of Food Research in Norwich, England, for
their report "A Study of the Effects of Water Content on
the Compaction Behaviour of Breakfast Cereal Flakes,"
published in Powder Technology .  -Mervin Stykes

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN  December 1995  Volume 273  Number 6  Page 14


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