Jewish World Review Oct. 22, 2003 / 26 Tishrei, 5764
Ig Nobels reward weird science
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | We humans are nothing if not curious.
How else to explain the Australian scientist who studied the composition of human belly-button lint?
Or the Scottish researchers who investigated why public toilets were collapsing in Glasgow?
Or the Pennsylvania scientist who studied the effects of Prozac on clams?
These, and other achievements like them, might go unnoticed were it not for a brave group of Harvard students who, 13 years ago, conducted the first Ig Nobel awards ceremony at the school's Sanders Theater.
Not in any way to be confused with the Nobel prizes, the Ig Nobels recognize "achievements that cannot or should not be reproduced."
The 2003 winners, announced earlier this month, include, in the category of physics, "An Analysis of the Forces Required to Drag Sheep Over Various Surfaces"; in the category of medicine, a study that supplies evidence that the brains of London cab drivers are more highly developed than those of their fellow citizens; in the category of chemistry, an analysis of why a particular bronze statue fails to attract pigeons and, in the category of interdisciplinary research, a paper on why chickens prefer beautiful humans. (Presumably a paper on why, or whether, humans prefer beautiful chickens is forthcoming.)
I was rather surprised to learn that an Ig Nobel award is not only not an embarrassment, it is actually coveted by the people who do these goofy things. Many people nominate themselves and, judging by this year's ceremony, most show up in person to receive their award.
According to Marc Abrahams, editor of "Annals of Improbable Research" and chairman of the Ig Nobel Board of Governors, an Ig Nobel "signifies to one and all that you have done something. What that thing is may be hard to explain maybe even totally inexplicable. But the fact is, you did it, and have been recognized for doing it."
Needless to say, that leaves a lot of leeway in choosing who is deserving and who is not deserving of an Ig Nobel award. However, it would be hard to justify withholding the Ig Nobel literature award from John Richards of Boston, England. After all, he is the founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society, an organization dedicated to "protecting, promoting and defending the differences between plural and possessive."
Or denying the peace prize to Viliumas Malinauskus of Grutas, Lithuania. After all, how many people would have even dreamed of creating an amusement park called "Stalin World."
"It combines the charms of a Disneyland with the worst of the Soviet gulag prison camp," said Malinauskus, who apparently has never visited Disney World in August.
The facility part amusement park and part open-air museum is circled by barbed wire and guard towers. Some 65 bronze and granite statues of former Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin and various other commie big shots dot the landscape.
The Ig Nobel award did not mention whether any of the statues were resistant to pigeon poop.
Another clearly deserving winner, in the category of literature, is Dr. Mara Sidoli of Washington, D.C., who had published in the "Journal of Analytical Psychology" an article titled "Farting as a Defense Against Unspeakable Dread."
(I intended to look up the article, but suddenly I found myself overcome with unspeakable dread.)
Speaking of tasteful, let us commence clapping with one hand for the achievement of Anders Barheim and Hogne Sandvik of the University of Bergen, Norway, for their report in the British Medical Journal titled "Effect of Ale, Garlic and Soured Cream on the Appetite of Leeches."
I don't know about the leeches, but I've suddenly lost my appetite.
(For more information on these and other potential science-fair projects, go on the Web to www.improb.com.)
Appreciate this column? Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
10/16/03: TV golf needs a kick in the pants