The annual Ig Nobel awards for the oddest research, at which real Nobel prize-winners often cavort on stage, are helping to popularise science. Steve Farrar reports
The message left on Chris McManus's answerphone had good news and bad: the professor of psychology and medical education at University College London had won an Ig Nobel prize. The respected academic wracked his brains as to how his endeavours might have attracted such recognition.
McManus is an acknowledged authority on laterality and a pioneer of the genetics of human handedness - the Ig Nobel prizes reward "achievements that cannot or should not be reproduced". That's not necessarily bad science but invariably bizarre and amusing research.
Then McManus recalled a somewhat unorthodox study he had carried out during an extended break in Italy while between posts in the mid-1970s.
Through an exhaustive study of 120 classical statues, he had revealed that ancient sculptors had consistently portrayed the right testicle as being smaller than it was in reality. The quirky discovery had made a paper in the prestigious journal Nature . Twenty-five years on, it was about to win him an Ig, alongside studies of bellybutton fluff and analysis of beer froth decay.
Yet McManus was not upset at the prospect. On the contrary, he started making plans to attend the award ceremony at Harvard University to receive his prize in person.
McManus is a lively, outgoing man who likens the humour of the Igs to that shared by scientists across the world whenever they gather for a coffee and a chat.
"That's part of the joy of science," he says. He did not see the Igs as some malevolent science-knocking operation but instead as something fun.
It is heartening that, over the years, so many other winning scientists have expressed similar views. They may have been serious in their research but they were not above having a chuckle at the results after receiving that Ig Nobel phone call.
The voice on the other end of the line belongs to Marc Abrahams.
A mathematician who was drawn into humorous writing more than a decade ago, Abrahams now makes his living as editor of the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR). He is also master of ceremonies for the Ig Nobel prizes, the latest batch of which were presented a few weeks ago, and has now published a short history of the awards.
Both magazine and prize are collaborative efforts, but Abrahams is the linchpin that holds everything together and the creative force that drives things forward.
His offbeat wit and eye for the unusual has enabled him to perfect laboratory humour while his dogged pursuit of the most obscure, oddball pieces of published research would put most investigative journalists to shame.
The pages of AIR have been replete with the same humour that colours the Igs since Abrahams launched it in the mid-1990s following the end of his involvement with a previous, like-minded publication.
It provides him with the rationale for exploring science's ticklish underbelly.
"I absolutely love doing this," Abrahams says, "and want to be doing it for the rest of my life." The principle motivation is simple: It's fun.
But many of the contributors see another facet of the AIR -Igs operation - it helps make science accessible.
"Part of it is getting people to be curious, even a little bit, about science," Abrahams says. "People think science is too hard to understand, too scary or even evil, often because they were taught by teachers who were scared of science themselves."
So he takes some pride in the fact that although AIR 's subscribers are mostly scientists, science teachers and students, the magazine is also enjoyed by their friends and families.
The Ig Nobels have been running for 11 years. Every year they seem to attract more attention around the world and are well on their way to entering the consciousness of the scientific community.
Ten winners are selected from an ever-increasing number of nominations by a board of governors that mostly consists of scientists, including several genuine Nobel laureates, and science writers. Some researchers nominate themselves for the awards, others lobby for friends. One Czech scientist has waged a long campaign to get his arch enemy selected for a prize - sending letters and supporting documentation directly to Abrahams and even attempting to enlist the support of Nobel laureates to back his fight.
The self-proclaimed philosophy is: "The Igs are intended to celebrate the unusual, honour the imaginative and spur people's interest in science. The Ig Nobel board of governors tries very, very, very hard to make sure that the Igs will not accidentally (or otherwise) damage the career or prospects of any winner." In fact, only in six cases have nominees asked for the prize to be reassigned elsewhere for such reasons.
About half of the final list of ten are for projects that could broadly be described as commendable, if eccentric. Abrahams then invites the winners to attend the ceremony. A surprising number do so, despite having to meet their own travel costs.
The event is unparalleled. Harvard's 1,200-seater Sanders Theatre sells out every year for the ceremony.
Winners get to make a brief speech and are asked to summarise their research in a matter of seconds, while Nobel laureates look on, paper aeroplanes are hurled and a host of well-worn in-jokes are exchanged with the audience. There is usually an opera based on a science theme - this year jargon - penned by Abrahams and often an attempt to explore some of the Ig Nobeled research. One year, four Nobel laureates were examined by doctors on stage in a bid to explore the Ig-winning hypothesis that there was a relationship between height, foot size and penile length. All four walked on wearing giant clown shoes.
Dudley Herschbach, professor of science at Harvard and winner of the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1986, is a stalwart supporter: "The joy of science is that you can learn something and have fun too. The Ig Nobels present that spirit very well." Stephen Hawking is believed to be another backer, though has not yet been able to attend. Stephen Wolfram, author of A New Kind of Science , made an appearance behind the scenes this year to greet the winners - one of his employees had taken the prize for chemistry for constructing a real, wooden periodic table.
Although AIR and the Igs are unabashed in their backhanded championing of science, the slapstick approach is not to everyone's taste. Some scientists have been rather offended at the idea that their work could prompt laughter.
Most well-known was the sense of humour failure suffered by Lord May, previously the government's chief scientific adviser and now president of the Royal Society.
May, whose dry wit is renowned, wrote Abrahams a stern letter asking that no more Igs be awarded to British scientists after a team from the University of East Anglia grabbed headlines for their winning study of how breakfast cereals go soggy. Some time later, Abrahams approached May at a meeting but was left in no doubt that his irritation was real and had not subsided.
It is interesting to note that this year, May's successor as chief scientific adviser, David King, took the time to attend and even sing during the ceremony, declaring: "This is all good fun."
The Igs and AIR demonstrate that at least elements of the scientific community have the confidence to mock themselves, the maturity to acknowledge the ridiculous and the humanity to share the mirth with everyone else.
The real question is, how did science manage to survive without them for so long?
The Ig Nobel Prizes , by Marc Abrahams, is published by Orion, £9.99.
A SELECTION OF IG NOBEL WINNERS
* A study by Len Fisher, a physicist at Bath University, that revealed the optimal way to dunk a biscuit (physics, 1999).
* Jacques Benveniste's "discovery" that water molecules in homeopathic remedies not only remember things but these memories can be transmitted over phone lines (chemistry, 1991 and 1998).
* Kansas State Board of Education's decision that children should not believe in Darwin's theory of evolution any more than Newton's theory of gravitation (science education, 1999).
* The training of pigeons to distinguish between the paintings by Monet and Picasso by scientists at Keio University, Japan (psychology, 1995).
* The creation of Ursus VI, a grizzly bear-proof suit, by Canadian inventor Troy Hurtubise (safety engineering, 1998).
* A study by three British medics into the distinctive rectal injuries suffered when porcelain toilets collapsed (public health, 2000).
* The setting up of the Apostrophe Protection Society by a British sub-editor in a bid to correct syntax (literature, 2000).
* Boosting the reproductive potential of clams using Prozac by a scientist at Gettysburg College (biology, 1998).
* A report on "The effects of pre-existing inappropriate highlighting on reading comprehension" by two US researchers (literature, 2002).
* Ecological study of glee in small groups of pre-school children by Lawrence W. Sherman of Miami University, Ohio (psychology, 2001).
* Harold Hillman of the University of Surrey compiled a report on the possible pain experienced during execution by different methods (peace, 1997).
* A medical research paper in The New England Journal of Medicine , co-authored by 976 people, which had 100 times as many authors as pages (literature, 1993).
Past winners (with full references): http://www.improbable.com/ig/ig-pastwinners.html