October 2, 1999
The Ig Nobels: Alternative prizes awarded for some
Hyuk-ho Kwon, the inventor of scratch-and-sniff
clothing, stood at the podium
as four Nobel Prize laureates awkwardly took their places at centre stage, each
dressed in a dark three-piece suit Kwon had made for them at his manufacturing
plant in Seoul.
''The stronger you rub it, the stronger it smells,'' Kwon instructed.
The sellout crowd of 1,200 in the historic
Sanders Theatre roared its
Tentatively, Nobel laureates William Lipscomb
(Chemistry '76), Dudley
Herschbach (Chemistry '86), Sheldon Glashow (Physics '79), and Robert Wilson
(Physics '78) scratched the shiny fabric.
Scratchin' and Sniffin'
They sniffed. They smiled. They scratched
harder. Soon, they were circling
one another, scratching and sniffing, as the crowd hooted and showered the stage
with paper airplanes.
''This is my greatest honour,'' Kwon said. More cheers. More paper airplanes.
And so it went Thursday night at the Ninth
1st Annual Ig Nobel Prize
Ceremony, which honors scientific accomplishments ''that cannot or should not be
reproduced, '' said emcee Marc Abrahams, editor of the science humour magazine
Annals of Improbable Research, which co-sponsored the event.
This year, bodily excretions, funny food,
ghastly clothing and flame-throwers
figured prominently in the 10 awards, given to winners representing nine
countries and five continents. Dr. Arvid Vatle came from Stord, Norway, to
accept the Ig Nobel in Medicine. He was honoured for ''carefully collecting,
classifying and contemplating which kinds of containers his patients chose when
submitting urine samples.'' The list included various beer and soft-drink
bottles and cans, a ''Bells Old Scotch Whiskey'' bottle, an empty deodorant
container and a jar that once held ''Cara Fiesta'' taco sauce.
The Journal of the Norwegian Medical Association
published Vatle's study in
its March 20 issue.
''I did the study for fun, merely for fun,
and as an emotional release,''
Vatle said before the show. ''I am a country practitioner, and I was constantly
amused by the containers the people used to bring in their specimens when I told
them they were needed for a test.''
Too often, he added, the test report he got
back bore tragic news. ''I
suppose I also did it to whistle, so that I may not weep,'' Vatle said.
On Monday, he delivers a lecture on his study at the Harvard Medical School.
Takeshi Makino, president of The Safety Detective
Agency in Osaka, Japan,
received the Chemistry award ''for his involvement with S-Check, an infidelity
detection spray that wives can apply to their husbands' underwear.'' It turns a
tattletale blue when it comes in contact with dried - well, you know what.
Some in the audience booed when Makino rose
to accept the award. There was a
way to beat his test, the stocky private eye said. ''Don't wear underpants,
ever,'' he said.
The Ig Nobel for Managed Health Care Ig was
awarded posthumously to George
and Charlotte Blonsky of New York City and San Jose, Calif., for inventing and
patenting a device to aid women in giving birth. The woman is strapped onto a
circular table, which then rotates at high speed. Blonsky reportedly got the
idea by watching elephants at the Bronx Zoo spinning around when they gave
''I think we're proud to accept this award,''
said Don Sturtevant, whose
wife, Gale, is the Blonskys' niece. ''Obviously he was very creative.''
The Sturtevants flew from California at their own expense to attend the Igs.
Not everyone has been so accepting. In 1995,
a team of British researchers
won an Ig for their study of why cereal gets soggy. Britain's chief science
adviser, Robert May, was not amused. In an interview with the prestigious
journal Nature, May railed against the Igs for ridiculing ''genuine'' scientific
projects like the soggy-cereal study. Go track down astrologers, spiritualists
and other fakirs, he thundered, and leave ''serious scientists to get on with
May's rant backfired, spectacularly so. Scientists
on both sides of the
Atlantic rushed to defend the Igs and skewer May as a stiff old twit.
''May's misfire only make him (and British
science) look thin-skinned and
humourless,'' wrote the editors of the journal Chemistry & Industry. ''Long may
British scientists take their rightful places in the Ig Nobel Honour roll. ''
After the 2 1/2-hour show, the four Nobel
laureates mixed freely on stage
with the Ig Nobel winners and the audience, signing autographs, posing for
pictures and talking about their smelly new suits.
''This is a really good suit,'' said Dudley
Herschbach, a Harvard chemistry
professor. ''Look, it's even got a vest. I'm wearing this to class tomorrow.''