Give that blow-up female an award

IgNobel Prizes
November 15, 2002

The IgNobel prizes are a life-enhancing institution, in which the solemn achievements celebrated by their Scandinavian near-namesakes are ignored in favour of the bizarre, the counterproductive or the insane. They sprang from the overdeveloped imagination of Marc Abrahams, author of this book, on whose shelves, one suspects, Scientific American vies for space with Mad magazine. Abrahams is the editor of The Annals of Improbable Research , a spoof scientific journal that spawned the IgNobels 12 years ago. Now the child has outgrown its parent and turned into a news phenomenon in its own right, with the awards ceremony broadcast coast to coast on US radio and watched online around the world. It looks like a student revue but on a grander scale, with the addition of substantial resources of time and people - including many winners of real Nobels, available in numbers because of the ceremony's Harvard location.

This companion volume takes a breezy approach to both prizes and prizewinners. It is clear that despite the impressive array of intellectual talent on the awarding committee, things are informal, the quorum is notional, and there is a tradition of dragging an unsuspecting passer-by into the meeting to add detachment. The prizes are also not circumscribed by the classifications that dog their stuffier rivals in Stockholm and Oslo. Instead, new ones can be thought up as needed, such as safety engineering, awarded to one Troy Hurtubise, who has built - and personally tested - a suit of armour capable of resisting attack by grizzly bears.

The riches on offer are well worth the price of this book, which must be the hardback bargain of the year. Here are the Dutch scientists who made magnetic resonance images of human reproductive organs while in use; the economists who proved that people were postponing their deaths to save on taxes; and the sociologist who published learned papers on the prevalence of glee in schoolchildren. All these deserve to be celebrated, along with the Norwegian doctor whose patient had caught gonorrhoea by borrowing a shipmate's inflatable female. And for the pet-lover, the tale of the entomology award for Robert Lopez, who put mites from his cat's ear into his own with spectacular results, is a disgusting must-read.

Sometimes Abrahams and his allies miss the target by going too far. The Welshman who smelt putrid for five years after pricking his finger cannot have enjoyed life much. Breatharians' belief that they need no food ceased to be amusing when someone under Breatharian influence died of starvation. At other times they choose too soft a target, such as the creationists of the Kansas state education system, or the word mangling of former US vice-president Dan Quayle. And on occasion they honour science that seems perfectly valid, such as investigating pigeons' abilities to tell Picasso from Monet. However, their errors are more well intentioned and not necessarily more frequent than those made by the longer-established Nobel committees.

The award of an IgNobel can also make a serious point. The literature prize for a scientific paper with (approximately) 976 authors, more than 100 per page, highlights a genuine issue about how science works. At the other extreme, honouring the Soviet author with his name on 948 papers in a decade - even death has not stopped him - shows that Abrahams and his allies care about spurious co-authorship.

Since the IgNobels are a more ambiguous honour than the Nobels, reactions to receiving one vary too. Some recipients are delighted, flying in from Asia and Europe at their own expense to pick up the prize. Others have a sense-of-humour failure, denounce the thing as a mockery of their life's work and stay away. Still others - usually in the economics category - are unable to attend due to their being incarcerated.

It says a lot about Britain's status in the world of knowledge that Abrahams picks out these islands for their overproduction of IgNobel candidates, many of whom go on to win a prize. Our achievements in economics (think Nick Leeson, slayer of Barings, or Lloyds of London) are well known. Less so are the award of an IgNobel peace prize to the Royal Navy for saving money by having sailors shout "Bang" instead of firing shells; and the public health award for research into toilet-collapse injuries in Glasgow.

So it is odd that the land of the Goons and Monty Python has also provoked the only international IgNobel incident, when Robert May, then the UK government's chief scientific adviser and now president of the Royal Society, denounced the prizes for bringing ridicule on serious research. He was set off by an IgNobel prize awarded to British scientists for doing vital work on how milk makes cereal soggy. But then you remember that Lord May of Oxford is really an Australian. What can one expect from a country that received an Ig for technology after an Australian was permitted to patent the wheel?

Martin Ince is contributing editor, The THES .

IgNobel Prizes

Author - Marc Abrahams
ISBN - 0 7528 5150 0
Publisher - Orion
Price - £9.99
Pages - 320

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