BOSTON--While eminent researchers secretly hope to go to Sweden in December to accept the most coveted awards in science, lesser-known colleagues are basking in a very different glow--that of the Ig Nobel Prize. At a raucous ceremony at Harvard University yesterday, a select group from six countries and four continents was inducted into the scientific pantheon of ignominy for boldly tackling issues from the question of why shower curtains billow inward to the risk of loitering under coconut trees.
Four real Nobel laureates were on hand to present the awards--in the form of a plaque with a cell phone flanked by two cans and connected by string--as well as to sing a brief opera at the 11th annual gathering. The silly send-up of the more staid Stockholm event featured what organizer Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, described as "the world's most scientific wedding ceremony," as well as an opportunity for senior researchers to describe their field in 24 seconds, and then in 7 words. For her discipline, Smith College professor Dany Adams summarized: "If it can get infected, it's biology."
Among the so-called winners were: Peter Barss of Montreal's McGill University, who grabbed the medicine award for his report on injuries due to falling coconuts in Papua New Guinea (conclusion: the worst injuries occur to individuals sleeping under coconut trees); physicist David Schmidt of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, who studied why shower curtains have that nasty habit of wrapping themselves around your body when you turn on the hot water; and Buck Weimer of Pueblo, Colorado, who won in the biology category for inventing Under-Ease, airtight underwear that includes a replaceable charcoal filter to remove gases. In addition, Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Walter Lewin accepted the astrophysics award in lieu of Michigan evangelists Jack and Rexella Van Impe, who discovered that black holes fit all the technical characteristics of hell.
The event included a win-a-date-with-a-Nobelist contest: The lucky winner will win an evening with Harvard chemist Dudley Herschbach. The two-and-a-half-hour ceremony concluded with the 60-second no-nonsense wedding of Lisa Danielson and Will Stefanov, two geologists from Arizona State University in Tempe. "If you didn't win an Ig Nobel prize tonight," said Abrahams, "and especially if you did: Better luck next year!"