News your connection to The Boston Globe
Today's Globe  |   Latest News:   Local   Nation   World   |  NECN   Education   Obituaries   Special sections  

These prizes reward improbable research

The man who gave Prozac to clams. The man who realized that blasting chickens into the air was not an effective way to measure tornado wind speed. The British Royal Navy, which ordered its sailors to stop using live cannon shells, and to just shout "Bang!" instead.

These are past recipients of the Ig Nobel Prizes, awards celebrating "achievements that cannot or should not be reproduced" that have grown in the last decade from a modest stunt to an elaborate spectacle broadcast on National Public Radio and websites worldwide. But the spirit behind them remains the same: First make people laugh, then make them think.

At this year's ceremony, to be held Thursday in Sanders Theatre at Harvard University, several Nobel laureates will help distribute prizes to 10 lucky winners hailing from four continents. Eric Lander, head of the new Harvard-MIT Broad Institute, will give one of the notorious seven-word "nanolectures" on the topic of "The Genome." The annual opera will be "Atom and Eve," a romance between a beautiful female scientist and an oxygen atom, backed by a chorus of Nobel laureates. And rumor has it that software tycoon Stephen Wolfram will be in attendance.

Marc Abrahams, a native of Swampscott, edits the science humor magazine that sponsors the Ig Nobels, the Annals of Improbable Research. After folding a software company called Wisdom Simulators, he took charge of a flagging science humor magazine, where he was often asked how to win a Nobel prize.

As a joke, he got some Nobel laureates to hand out awards for weird research at MIT. "People snapped up the tickets instantly, and the building was jammed," Abrahams said. "Every person in that room felt that any moment some authority would come in and tell us to stop and go home. But nobody did, and after that it just started to grow and grow and grow."

What sets the Ig Nobels apart? Unlike the Olympics or the Darwin Awards, they make no attempt to single out the best or the worst in any category. Rather, they honor achievements that are truly extraordinary, whether they be awful, wonderful, or a hopeless mixture of both. Take the study of how a single inflatable doll spread gonorrhea throughout Greenland, or a paper concluding that people will find a way to postpone their deaths if it means a lower inheritance tax.

Unlike other spoof awards, the Ig Nobels receive a large number of self-nominations, and go to great lengths to confirm that their recipients are willing. "An exception to that is the Economics prize winner," Abrahams said. "Most years they have been unavailable, because they are in prison."

The Ig Nobels archives are dotted with the dishonest (from Michael Milken to Enron), the obscene (from MRIs of copulating couples to a survey of nose-picking), and the severely misled (from Dan Quayle to Deepak Chopra).

Where others might see evil, perversion or stupidity, however, Abrahams finds only admirable persistence. "Our role is not to make judgments for people, but simply to bring things to their attention," he insists. "Almost all breakthroughs seemed strange and funny when they were new." But patenting the wheel? Cold fusion inside chicken eggs? "I want people to get in the habit of asking questions rather than simply accepting what some authority tells them."

In the end, Abrahams hopes that all the pomp and chaos will get people curious about science rather than scared of it. Barring that, he noted that the Ig Nobels "by their very existence make the Nobel Prizes shine all the more brightly."

"The 13th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony" will be held at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Sanders Theatre at Harvard. It will be webcast live at The winners will speak again at MIT at 1 p.m. Saturday.

Globe Archives Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months