IgNobel: Wired News: A Gala Night For Wierd Science

Rohit Khare (khare@w3.org)
Wed, 15 Oct 1997 21:50:06 -0400 (EDT)

Date: Wed, 15 Oct 1997 15:06:45 -0400
From: Marc Abrahams <marca@wilson.harvard.edu>
Subject: [nev@bostic.com: A Gala Night for Weird Science]

This is the Wired News report on the Ig. It's now hitting the
internet mailing lists.


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A Gala Night for Weird Science
by Scott Kirsner

12:15pm 10.Oct.97.PDT -- The scalper on the steps of Harvard
University's Sanders Theatre had no trouble getting rid of his last
pair of tickets. Inside, the 1200-seat auditorium was packed to its
gothic rafters for the Seventh First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, a
celebration of scientific achievements that "cannot or should not be

The awards ceremony, which founder and emcee Marc Abrahams describes
as a "cross between the Academy Awards, the Nobel Prizes, and a
Ringling Brothers three-ring circus," is sponsored by the Annals of
Improbable Research, which Abrahams edits. It acknowledged (somehow,
"honored" would not be the right word) the accomplishments of such
diverse luminaries as the late Bernard Vonnegut (Meteorology),
perpetrator of a paper entitled "Chicken Plucking as Measure of
Tornado Speed," Mark Hostetler (Entomology), author of That Gunk on
Your Car: A Unique Guide to the Insects of North America, and
notorious Internet spammer Sanford Wallace (Communications), president
of Cyber Promotions.

The goal of the Igs is to make science more accessible, according to
Eric Schulman, a researcher at the National Radio Astronomy
Observatory, who delivered a two-minute oral history of the universe
at the event. "It's a great time, because it totally contradicts the
notion that scientists are stuffy people," Schulman said. "And it
shows that if you make science humorous, you can get the average
person interested in understanding it."

Few average people were in attendance Thursday night. The audience was
filled with the Ig's traditional delegations - groups like "The
Society for the Prevention of a Better Tomorrow" and "Non-Extremists
for Moderate Change." One representative of "Lawyers For and Against
the Big Bang" carried a placard that read, "Have you been injured by
cosmic background radiation left behind by the big bang?" On the dais
were a handful of actual Nobel Prize winners, including Richard
Roberts (Medicine, 1993), wearing a giant yellow and black Cat in the
Hat-style stovepipe hat, and William Lipscomb (Chemistry, 1976), who
wore a flashing red bow tie and played a few ragtime tunes on his
clarinet before the proceedings began.

Highlights of the two-and-a-half hour ceremony, which was cybercast
live on the Web and will be broadcast in November on National Public
Radio's Science Friday show, included a mini-opera about the creation
of the universe entitled Il Kaboom Grosso, an auction of plaster casts
of the Nobel laureates' left feet that raised funds for the science
programs in Cambridge public schools, and a series of Heisenberg
Certainty Lectures. One such lecture, delivered by Boston University
chancellor John Silber on the history of free speech, exceeded the
strict 30-second time limit, and Silber was forced from the podium by
a referee.

Throughout the ceremony, the audience threw hundreds of paper
airplanes at the stage, the small orchestra, and each other, a
long-time Ig tradition. Confetti and sheet music also flew, as did a

replica of the Hale-Bopp comet, which was trailed by a silver
spaceship. "The feeling you get when you're there is, 'We shouldn't be
allowed to do this,'" says Abrahams.

This year's prize winners include the scientists behind a paper titled
"Measuring People's Brainwave Patterns While They Chew Different
Flavors of Gum" (Biology), the authors of The Bible Code (Literature),
and the creators of the Tamagotchi (Economics). One notable previous
Ig winner in attendance was Don Featherstone, the inventor of the
plastic pink flamingo (Art, 1996).

The live cybercast was coordinated by Robert T. Morris, the convicted
felon whose worm program crashed the Internet in 1988. Doug Berman,
the producer of NPR's Car Talk program, was in charge of periodically
sweeping the stage clean of paper airplanes. Boston Museum of Science
administrator Bunny Watson handled the chickens.

"Sometimes you need to get out of your ivory tower and show that
scientists are people too, and we can poke fun at ourselves," said
honoree Hostetler, cradling his Ig, a cheap-looking replica of an
exploding cigar. During his acceptance speech, Hostetler, a professor
at the University of Florida and ardent admirer of all things
arthropoidal, thanked "all the Greyhound bus drivers who let me pick
the insects off their windshields."

"The initial idea [for the Igs] was to have a goofy awards ceremony,"
says Abrahams, who has hosted the event since 1991, its first
year. "We wanted to get everything we could think of that was
dignified and have it appear in some backward, upside-down, or twisted

Four Nobel laureates dressed in white sheets and impersonating
neutrinos for the three-part opera Il Kaboom Grosso certainly
satisfied that goal, as did bizarre cameos by the Reverend Peter Gomes
of the Harvard Divinity School and a number of (previously)
distinguished Harvard professors.

"If there is a serious part to it," muses Abrahams, "it's too see if
we can seduce more people to get interested in science - people who
think it's scary, or impossible to understand, or just plain boring."

Boring is not a word that can be used to describe a gala at which
roving representatives of the Institute for Cryogenic Sex Research
handed out pamphlets headlined Safe Sex at Four Kelvin.

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