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Ig Nobel

Ig Nobel

In praise of weird science and technology

Skip the Grammys. The Oscars are boring. It's time to talk about the only award in the history of the Earth that has been presented both to ducks that practice homosexual necrophilia and Dan Quayle. That's right, it's time for the Ig Nobel Prizes, which are ... ahem ... "loosely" affiliated with Harvard University. It's not quite the anti-Nobel, since you're bound to learn about some real, if weird, science Thursday if you attend this year's ceremony at Harvard's Sanders Theater, or if you watch the live webcast.

"There's that one sentence which sums it up: things that first make people laugh, and then make them think," says Marc Abrahams, who is the editor of Improbable Research and founded the Ig Nobel Prizes when Dan Quayle was still vice president. "What people think, that's up to them."

The magazine is "loosely and unofficially" based at Harvard, while the Ig Nobel Prizes are co-sponsored by three Harvard student groups and receive informal support from university faculty and staff.

The stage tends to be littered with paper airplanes, but real Nobel Prize winners help hand out the trophies, which look as if they've been constructed in a fifth-grade arts and crafts class.

Among the winners, Abrahams has many favorites. But few stand out like the 2003 Ig Nobel for biology, awarded to a team of scientists from the Netherlands for documenting the first scientifically recorded case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck.

"As with many of the prizes, it catches your attention when you first hear the citation, but when you look at the details there's so much more," Abrahams says.

We bet there was.

The Ig Nobels got rolling in 1991 by awarding the education prize to Dan Quayle -- described as a "consumer of time and occupier of space" - for demonstrating, better than anyone else, the need for science education.

More technologically inclined time-consumers and space-occupiers have also won the Ig Nobel.

The 2005 peace prize was awarded to researchers who monitored brain activity in a locust forced to watch "Star Wars." An "electromechanical teenager repellent" and an alarm clock that runs away and hides also earned their inventors Ig Nobel prizes in the past couple of years.

The 1996 Ig Nobels honored the Big Tobacco executives who claimed nicotine is not addictive, and a 2002 prize went to the Enron executives who perfected the art of lying as it pertains to financial accounting.

Spammers have taken prizes at least twice. Winning the 2005 literature prize were the Nigerians who have probably e-mailed you to request expense money they need to "obtain access to the great wealth to which they are entitled and which they would like to share with the kind person who assists them." In 1997, a relentless spammer named Sanford Wallace won for communications.

Jacques Benveniste, a French immunologist, actually won twice. He got the 1991 chemistry prize for discovering that water is an intelligent liquid that has memory. Seven years later, he won for claiming that information contained within water's memory can be transmitted over telephone lines and the Internet.

"He's the only person who won two Ig Nobel prizes, and then he died," Abrahams says.

To clarify, Benveniste died in 2004 at the age of 69, six years after his second Ig Nobel. So despite Abrahams' choice of phrasing, we're pretty sure the demise of Benveniste's earthly existence is almost entirely unrelated to his Ig Nobel success.

Abrahams and his crew give out 10 prizes at each year's ceremony, after poring through an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 submissions. Abrahams, his magazine staff, and scientists and other contributors from around the world spend the whole year whittling down the list.

They quietly inform the winners, offering them the prize and giving them a chance to decline the honor. Few people turn it down. Most even attend the ceremony to accept the prize in person, often flying from overseas at their own expense.

"Most of the ones who turn it down are for essentially the same reason. They have a boss who already doesn't like them, and they don't want to give that person one more reason not to like them," Abrahams says.

Abrahams wouldn't divulge this year's list of winners in advance, but said seven of the 10 plan to attend. The Ig Nobel team was unable to get in touch with two of the winners, who live on the other side of the globe.

Even though winners fly in at their own expense, they won't be allowed to speak for long. They get about a minute until Miss Sweety Poo, a "very cute 8-year-old girl" approaches the stage, and repeats the phrase "Please stop, I'm bored" over and over until the winner stops speaking.

"She doesn't stop until they do, and it works," Abrahams says.

If the ceremony proceeded at normal speed, it would take about six hours, according to Abrahams. Thanks to aforementioned 8-year-old girl, it wraps up in 90 minutes.

Unfortunately, Dan Quayle never had the honor of being interrupted midsentence by Miss Sweety Poo.

"In the earliest years, we didn't realise that most of the winners would come if we asked them," Abrahams explains. "So we got in touch only with a few. I wish we had tried to get [Quayle] to come."

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Tags new technologyscience education

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