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COLUMN

The Fame of the Ig Nobel Prize

Andrew C. Thomas

I’m sure that many young scientists enter the research profession for the allure of the Nobel Prize. Winning the fabled award is thought to be a crowning achievement to an investigator’s career, or at least something that the scientist’s mother can say proudly to her local bridge club.

But only recently has another award made its way into the public consciousness, one dedicated not only to scientific excellence but to research that makes people wonder why it was conducted in the first place.

I speak of the Ig Nobel Prizes, a set of ten awards given out at Sanders Theater on Thursday night. They are sponsored by the Annals of Improbable Research (http://www.improb.com) and were first spearheaded by the Annals’ founder and editor Marc Abrahams. The ceremony, now in its 13th year, has its own lore. The creation and test flight of hundreds of paper airplanes before (and during) the ceremony has been a trademark since its second year, as was a certain relaxed atmosphere -- after all, the Nobel laureates asked to present the awards, including MIT’s own Wolfgang Ketterle, were dressed down to say the least; one wore LED earrings and another blew a bullhorn at opportune moments. And the ceremony was not limited purely to scientific achievement; a miniature opera, Atom and Eve, was presented with an abundance of physics jokes, and several brief non sequitur “moments of science” were also portrayed.

But all the flourish surrounding the ceremony was second to the true marvel of the evening, those achievements of science which, according to Abrahams, are selected for dual criteria: that they first make you laugh, and then think.

A strong case in point was the first award of the evening, the Prize for Engineering, given to John Paul Stapp, George Nichols, and Edward A. Murphy, Jr. The research? The formulation, in 1949, of an engineering principle originally designed to spur creative thinking about error analysis.

But before you could blink, the cynics got a hold of Murphy’s Law, and reformulated it as the classic “If anything can go wrong, it will.”

The serious science of the trio’s research was emphasized in the acceptance speech given by Edward Murphy III in his late father’s absence. He told a story of a safety worker at the World Trade Center who assumed the worst after the terrorist attack of 1993, instituting regular safety drills knowing the extreme likelihood that a repeat attack would happen. When it did, only six workers from his company, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, perished; sadly, the worker himself was one of them, after making a return trip to rescue more people.

The Ig Nobel Prize (from this point forth, referred to as “Ig”) for Literature was equally illuminating, awarded to John Trinkaus of the Zicklin School of Business, for his meticulous collection of data, and publication of it, on a wide range of subjects. And we do mean wide. Among his many analyses, he asks what proportion of baseball cap wearers place the brim to the front, side or back, and how many commuters would come to a complete stop at a certain intersection. The subtitle to most of his works is “An Informal Look,” which is an understatement to the amount of attention he pays to these phenomena in general.

But the crowning award of the evening, the Ig for Peace, was awarded to Lal Bihari of India, largely for creating the Association of Dead People.

OK, for all of you who picture Haley Joel Osment’s famous Oscar-nominated scene, you can stop laughing now.

Bihari spent nearly 20 years of his life legally dead, due first to the actions of an uncle who had him declared dead for inheritance purposes, and then to the extreme incompetence of the bureaucracy to have his death reversed.

What makes Bihari’s case so compelling is that it was in no way isolated. Many other “living dead” walk in India, and it was his work in uniting them that gave the movement strength. A new understanding was given to the problem, one that likely would not have been noticed if Bihari had not take such unusual steps as organizing his own funeral or arranging for a pension for his wife/widow.

I left the ceremony realizing that, yes, I would be just as honored to appear on the stage of Sanders to be presented with such an award, having paid my own way to get there (which, by the time I become infamous and of modest wealth, will hopefully be more than bus fare.) But not anyone can win an Ig; thousands of nominations are received every year, and some go to the famous for accidental reasons; French President Jacques Chirac won the 1996 Peace Prize for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima by conducting atomic weapons tests in the Pacific.

Still, short of nuking a wide variety of sea life, I could give it a try.