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Ig Nobel prizes display wit, fun, drunks

You may have read about the Ig Nobel Prize awards in the last issue of The Tech. Normally I would be upset at the news department for stealing my thunder and deciding (at the last minute) to cover an event I had been planning to write about for a couple of weeks.

However, in this case I'll forgive them, because the news story means that people will be more likely to believe this column. My standard disclaimer in situations like this is that my imagination is not good enough to make something like this up.

The Ig Nobel Prizes are put together by the Journal of Irreproducible Results, a local publication which lampoons scientific journals and the world of science in general. JIR humor is often subtle, requiring that the reader have some knowledge of the science being parodied.

As for the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony -- well, it wasn't subtle.

The idea is that Ig (short for "Ignacius") Nobel was a supposed relative of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. Ig invented soda pop, and left part of his vast fortune to fund these prizes. It's all a takeoff on the Nobels and scientific pomposity in general.

We arrived at the MIT Museum early and wandered around to see the setup. The exhibition hall was filled with chairs. Most of the other rooms in the museum were filled with chairs as well, with a closed-circuit video hookup allowing everyone to see the festivities.

Certain rooms, however, were open to "salient dignitaries only." This is, of course, where the wine was being served. Judging from the inebriation level of the wandering dignitaries, I would have to guess that the wine was free. One dignitary asked "What does a person have to do to get a glass of wine around here?"

"Prove he's breathing, apparently," I answered.

One dignitary, whose name tag helpfully identified him as "Dignitary #26," wandered over to talk to us. He was rather drunk and was missing his upper front teeth. He babbled incoherently and then left us alone to enjoy the festivities.

First, to the sounds of a brass quintet, the Ig Nobel laureates entered the room. Leading the procession was a woman dressed in a pink ballerina outfit, dancing about maniacally, throwing tinsel all around as if she were trying to plant aluminum Christmas trees. Personally, I think her doctor should have warned her that white wine would interact this way with her prescription medication.

Following the pixie were four genuine Nobel Prize winners. (A fifth, Jerome I.Friedman, the 1990 Physics Laureate from MIT , was scheduled to appear, but cancelled. In his place they projected a slide of him on the board and played a tape of him saying "Congratulations. Your work is an inspiration to all of us.") The laureates maintained their dignity, wearing caps and carrying plastic swords. Eric Chivian of MIT (Peace laureate, 1985) was wearing a fez. I don't know if he's an Akbar groupie or a Jeff groupie.

Behind the laureates were a smattering of people in wildly strange costumes. The only way to imagine it is to picture a whole bunch of smart drunk people deciding to play Let's Make A Deal. Marc Abrahams, editor of JIR, took the Monty Hall part. Everyone was introduced, with much fanfare.

First Abrahams announced that the traditional torch ceremony would take place. Suddenly, the lead singer from Midnight Oil ran into the room carrying a flashlight wrapped in orange cellophane (see photo.) OK, maybe it wasn't really him, but I was yelling out requests for my favorite songs from Blue Sky Mining just to be sure.

There was then the traditional "Welcome, Welcome" speech. At great cost of time and money, I have decided to print the entire transcript of that speech here in this column. It is: "Welcome, welcome."

The dignitaries introduced themselves to each other, as Abrahams put it, "with bowing and scraping." Abrahams was pretty funny; when the ceremony took a left turn and headed toward stupidity, he used his subtle sense of humor to put it back on track.

Warren A. Seamans, director of the MIT Museum, gave a "Token Speech." Yep, you guessed it, he handed out tokens, good for use at the Student Center game room. Then Vice Provost Samuel J. Keyser, otherwise known as the MIT professor of humor, gave a speech in which he squeaked a lot, trying to sound like a rat. (Editor's note: We called Bill for confirmation, and it turns out this actually happened.)

Next was the traditional soda pop ceremony, performed because Ignacious Nobel invented the drink. Four men took long swigs of soda and burped harmoniously. Abrahams provided a standard disclaimer for the ceremony. It was in Nobel's will.

Then Dr. Laurence Stybel appeared to give a speech on the employment prospects for the Ig Nobel laureates. Of course, he had misheard and thought it was for the Nobel awards. He refused to give a speech.

Next were the elections to the Posthumous Board of Governors. Inventor Rube Goldberg was elected, as well as Guinness Record Holder Marilyn vos Savant. Marilyn, who is listed in Guinness for "Highest IQ," writes for Parade magazine. This is akin to the world's leading liberal writing for National Review. Although rumored to still be alive, Marilyn could not attend, instead sending a publicity photo and an audio tape with a message thanking everyone for the dubious honor.

Finally, to the prizes.

Some were funny. Some were scathingly harsh. And one, believe it or not, was genuine. Some highlights:

1/3 The Ig Nobel Prize for Education went to J. Danforth "Mars has oxygen" Quayle. He was there to accept, sort of. A young lady of perhaps seven or eight years, wearing a business suit, carefully read a speech. The illusion was almost complete, but the real Quayle would have stumbled over some of the big words (see photo.)

1/3 The Ig Nobel Prize for Literature was given to Erich Von Daniken, who wrote Chariots of the Gods, which reported that ancient astronauts influenced human civilization. Accepting for the absent Von Daniken was . . . Dignitary #26, from way back in the ninth paragraph! They gave his real name, but to me, he'll always be Dignitary #26. He slurred through a speech and sat back down.

1/3 The Ig Nobel Prize for Pedestrian Technology went to Paul Defanti, inventor of the Buckybonnet, a Buckminster Fulleresque dome which is worn over a pedestrian's head to protect that person from harm. There was a "spontaneous" demonstration of the device's effectiveness when a rather attractive woman stormed into the room, accompanied by a policeman. The woman declared that Defanti had fathered her child. She attempted to hit him, but the Buckybonnet protected him. I happened to be sitting next to Defanti, and when he returned to his seat, I congratulated him. Looking at his Ig Nobel Prize, he said, "Oh, thanks."

"Not for that," I responded. "For getting that woman pregnant."

1/3 Finally, most importantly, the Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine went to Alan Kligerman, "deviser of digestive deliverance, vanquisher of vapor and inventor of Beano." For those of you not up to date with the battle against social embarrassment, Beano is a miracle liquid which you sprinkle on foods with, er, certain qualities in common, such as beans, cole slaw or cabbage. It prevents gas.

Kligerman graciously accepted the award, launching into a speech about his new product (I swear I am not making this up) which is a new version of Beano made specifically for dogs. The product is called "Cur-Tail." Prevents canine gas.

The crowd chanted "Beano, Beano" as Kligerman left the stage. The Traditional Goodbye, Goodbye Speech closed the ceremonies. ("Goodbye, goodbye.")

How do I get these assignments?


Tech Opinion Editor Bill Jackson '93 is only somewhat sorry he never got to ask Marilyn what the odds were of her having a last name meaning "intelligent."