Issue #44

Last Update March 2, 2006

Technology Ig Nobel Prizes by Gert Innsry  Scientists are the funniest people. Most of them have a well-developed sense of wonder, which is why they became scientists in the first place. They follow ideas to their logical (and often silly) conclusion. They investigate problems that might appear silly to the layperson, but which could illuminate a corner of a far more important problem. This sense of wonder and glorious silliness was on display at the 17th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize awards, held October 2 at Harvard's Sanders Theater, and co-sponsored by the Annals of Improbable Research, the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association, the Harvard Computer Society and the Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students.

The Ig Nobel Prize Awards have something for everyone: real Nobel prize winners (6), a four-act nano-opera (nano was the word of the day), paper airplanes, slides showing the Stud-Muffins of Science calendar for 2004, a keynote address by Edward A. Murphy III, son of the eponymous Murphy of Murphy's Law, and, of course, several brief science lectures, including one by Mark Fonstad, lead author of a scientific paper proving that Kansas is indeed flatter than a pancake.

The height of the show, however, is the presentation of the actual Ig Nobel prizes. To win such a prize, you usually have to have had a scholarly paper published in peer-reviewed journal, although exceptions are made, especially for the Ig Nobel Peace prize and often for the prize in economics. The topic of the paper has to be silly enough, trivial enough or bizarre enough to catch the attention of the prize committee. All prizes awarded this year seemed well-deserved, and the gracious winners (most of whom showed up to receive their prizes) seemed to be unabashed and having as good a time as the audience.

Some of the more memorable prizes included the prize in Physics, for an Australian paper, "An Analysis of the Forces Required to Drag Sheep over Various Surfaces"; the prize in Chemistry to a Japanese chemist for his chemical investigation of a bronze statue that fails to attract pigeons, the prize in Economics to the nation of Liechtenstein for making it possible to rent the entire country for weddings and bar mitzvahs; and last but not least, the Ig Nobel Peace prize awarded to Lal Bihari of India, who, though declared legally dead by scheming relatives, managed to create the Association of Dead People to fight on the behalf of those in a similar plight. Although he eventually, after many years, rewon his status as a live person, he was unable to attend the Awards ceremony because the American Consulate in Mumbai (Bombay) refused to grant him a visa. An Indian filmmaker is currently doing a film on the life, bureaucratic death and eventual official resurrection of Mr. Bihari.

The prizes themselves consisted of a clear Lucite box purported to contain a gold bar one nanogram in weight. The invisibility of such a bar notwithstanding, the winners accepted with gratitude. They also received a certificate of award signed by all of the real Nobel Prize winners present, worth far more than a nanogram of gold.

The opera, "Atom and Eve", about the love affair between an attractive female chemist and an oxygen atom, doomed because of a disparity in their sizes, was presented one act between each prize award. Each act consisted of a single song, most to the tune of a Gilbert and Sullivan number. It ends badly for the protagonists. The Opera starred Margot Button, as the chemist, Jason McStoots as the oxygen atom, and Tara Hunt as a fellow scientist. Tara Hunt is a goddess, a veritable Xena with slicked-back hair and horn-rimmed glasses. Margot Button sang the chemist role well. Jason McStoots, however, was outstanding, with a perfect light-opera voice and the ability to put a song over. The audience rooted for him to live happily ever after with his love, but it was not to be.

The Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony will be broadcast November 28 on NPR's Science Friday with Ira Flatow. It (and the libretto to Atom and Eve) are also available on the Annals of Improbable Research website (

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