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Offbeat Studies Win Ig Nobels for Humor

By Dali Jimnez

Last Thursday marked the seventh annual Ig Nobel Ceremony at the sold out Saunders Theater at Harvard University. The ceremony, a spoof of the Nobel prizes that will be awarded throughout the week, drew a diverse crowd of 1,200 students, researchers, professors and past Nobel laureates.

The Ig Nobels are sponsored by the Annals of Improbable Research and honor achievements that "cannot or should not be reproduced," said Marc Abrahams, editor of the magazine and master of ceremonies of the Ig Nobels. Abrahams said the awards are meant as "a good-natured spoof of science."

Not everyone agrees, however. The chief scientific adviser to the government of the United Kingdom, Robert May, complained about the potentially damaging nature of the awards in Nature after last year's prizes.

However, part of the scientific community does not object to the humorous nature of the ceremonies, as evidenced by the number of past Nobel laureates in attendance, including Dudley Herschbach, who won the Chemistry prize 1986; William Lipscomb, who won the Chemistry prize in 1976; Richard Roberts, who won the Physiology or medicine prize in 1993; and Robert W. Wilson, who won the Physics prize in 1978.

Besides AIR, other sponsors of the Ig Nobels include the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association, the Harvard Computer Society and the new book The Best of Annals of Improbable Research, thoroughly advertised throughout the ceremony.

Ten awards were given in the categories of biology, entomology, astronomy, communications, physics, literature, medicine, economics, peace and meteorology.

Bug gunk study garners award

All the science awards were given for actual scientific research, no matter how improbable. And improbable they were. So much in fact, that only one laureate and the son of another came to receive their award in person.

Mark Hostetler of the University of Florida received the Entomology prize for his book, That Gunk on Your Car, which identifies the insect splats that appear on automobile windows.

Additionally, Peter Vonnegut accepted the Meteorology prize on behalf of his deceased father Bernard Vonnegut, the older brother of novelist Kurt Vonnegut, for his revealing report entitled "Chicken Plucking as a Measure of Tornado Wind Speed."

Other humorous prizes included the peace prize, awarded to Harold Hillman of the University of Surrey, England for his lovingly rendered report on "The Possible Pain Experienced During Execution by Different Methods."

The Medicine prize was given to Carl J. Charnetsky and Francis X. Brennan, Jr. of Wilkes University, and James F. Harrison of Muzak, Ltd. in Seattle, Washington, for their discovery that listening to elevator music stimulates Immunoglobulin A production, and thus may help prevent the common cold.

Opera features smoking God

The ceremony commenced with paper airplanes being thrown about Saunders theater by a very enthusiastic crowd.

Delegations included the Institute for Cryogenic Sex Research, whose logo Safe Sex at 4 Kelvin' was displayed in a banner; the League of Junior Scientists; the Non-Extremists for Moderate Change; Lawyers For and Against the Big Bang; and the Museum of Bad Art.

The spectators were asked to join in a "moment of science" by Sister Christine Magourq and the Queen and King of Sweedish Meatballs were ushered into the stage.

Health care was satirized by frequent announcements by "HMO Black," an alleged sponsor of the event.

The year's opera, "Il Kaboom Grosso" featured God smoking a cigarette which led to the beginning of the world. Of course, Abrahams said, "kids, just because someone you look up to smokes, that doesn't mean you should." The opera also featured the laureates Lipscomb, Roberts, Wilson, Herschbach as neutrinos who joined soprano Margot Burton and Baritone Benjamin Sears in the final act.

The laureates were also very active throughout the rest of the ceremony. Lipscomb played the clarinet at various times. A plaster of his left foot, along with that of Walter Gilbert, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1981, was auctioned to benefit the Cambridge Public Schools.

Six, 30-second long Heisenberg Certainty Lectures were given by various professors, including William H. Pres, a professor of physics and astronomy at Harvard, and Lipscomb.