Reprinted from JAMA
Journal of the American Medical Association Medical News & Perspectives - April 1, 1998
----------------------------------------------------- Is It Ig Nobler for Science to Suffer the
Slings & Arrows of Outrageous Foolery? Twas the saying of an ancient sage, . . . that humor was the only test of gravity, and gravity of humor. For a subject which would not bear raillery was suspicious; and a jest which would not bear a serious examination was certainly false wit. --Anthony Cooper, Earle of Shaftesbury (1671-1713) ---------------------------------------------------- SHOULD SCIENCE always be taken seriously? That question is at the heart of a debate that has been smoldering ever since the United Kingdom's top science adviser, Sir Robert May, warned of the risk of poking fun at scientists without their consent (Nature. 1996;383:291). What provoked his outcry may have been the propensity of scientists in the United Kingdom to win more than their share of Ig Nobel Prizes. Called the world's most "(un)coveted award for achievements that cannot or should not be reproduced," the Ig Nobel Prizes are bestowed at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass, in October, around the same time that the Nobel Prizes are handed out in Stockholm, Sweden. Like the more noble Nobels, Ig Nobel Prizes are given each year for distinctive achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine or physiology, literature, peace, and economics, or reasonable facsimiles thereof. Unlike the Nobels, they are awarded in a ceremony famous for irreverence and high jinks, with genuine Nobel laureates handing out the awards and playing to a packed audience of paper airplane-throwing academics. [PHOTO: In the midst of Harvard high jinks, Harald Moi, MD, of Oslo, Norway, accepts his 1996 Ig Nobel Prize in Public Health for his case report, 'Transmission of Gonorrhea Through an Inflatable Doll' (Genitourin Med. 1993;69:322). Source: Stephen Powel/Annals of Improbable Research] Marc Abrahams, editor of the satirical journal of science Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), has been the master of these zany ceremonies since staging the first one in 1991, at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. He founded this "good-natured spoof " of science and the Nobel Prize ceremony to "honor the world's largely overlooked scientists and other contributors to modern culture, who bring smiles and guffaws to others, whether intentional or not." The "Igs," as they are affectionately called, "are named after Ignatius Nobel, the legendary coinventor of soda pop and rumored relative of Alfred, the one who invented dynamite and founded those other prizes," Abrahams said. Among past Ig Nobel laureates are cranks and kooks, jesters and pranksters, but also hard-working researchers who chose to examine-sometimes a bit too closely-the foibles of their fellow humans. Each year, the ceremony receives extensive coverage from local, national, and international news media, including a broadcast of the entire ceremony over National Public Radio. It was also televised on C-Span in 1996 and has been telecast live over the Internet for the past 3 years. 'Causing a Lot of Grief' Britain's chief science adviser May was not pleased with some of that attention-especially the "snap, crackle, and pop" news coverage given the British food scientists who won the 1995 Ig Nobel in physics for their study of how breakfast cereal flakes get soggy in milk. In the Nature interview, May accused the Ig Nobel Prize organizers of "causing a lot of grief " by subjecting "genuine" scientific projects to counterproductive ridicule. They should focus on people engaged in pseudoscience and antiscience and "leave serious scientists to get on with their work," he said. He also suggested that they obtain the scientists' consent before awarding future prizes. Quick to defend the honor of the Ig Nobels was the British publication Chemistry & Industry, which asked in an October 7, 1996, editorial whether the British government's chief science adviser is "a pompous killjoy." May, the editorial said, "appears only to confirm that the British scientific establishment takes itself far too seriously...the work of genuinely 'serious' scientists will withstand transitory embarrassment at the hands of TV comics and tabloid newspapers-assuming, of course, that their work really is recognized as 'serious' by other scientists. If, under a sudden spotlight, some scientists have to spend much time and effort explaining to everyone why their work is worth funding, that is a good thing and should happen more often, not less." The serious cereal scientists also did not share May's dismay. They were so delighted by the prize that they sent Abrahams a humorous videotaped acceptance speech that was shown at the Ig Nobel ceremony. Abrahams is excellent at marshaling the farces of his Nobel laureate comrades in defending the inalienable right to pursue fun in science. When the animal rights group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine appropriated the name "Ig Nobel" for an award to disparage the use of animals in research, the response was quick and unified: In a press release on January 9, 1995, Abrahams announced that the "international science community is shocked by the Washington lobbying group's actions." He was joined by 5 Nobel laureates: "I am shocked,'' said Harvard professor William Lipscomb (Chemistry, 1976). "I am shocked," said Harvard professor Sheldon Glashow (Physics, 1979). "I am shocked and disgusted," said Harvard professor Dudley Herschbach (Chemistry, 1986). MIT professor Jerome Friedman (Physics, 1990), however, said that he was "appalled" that someone would try to use the vehicle of the Ig Nobel awards for political aims. "The purpose of these awards is to enhance the humor of our lives, something that is in short supply and should be protected," he said. And New England Biolabs research director Richard Roberts (Physiology or Medicine, 1993) said, "It's outrageous. My hair stands on end at the very thought of it." Win a Date With a Nobel Laureate Abrahams cooked up the Ig Nobels when he was editor of AIR's predecessor and rival publication, Journal of Irreproducible Results, from 1990 to 1994. Unhappy with the then publisher, Blackwell Scientific Publications, Cambridge, he quit and was followed by the merry band of slaphappy Nobel laureates and other contributors. Together with Alex Kohn (now deceased) and Harry Lipkin, who cofounded the Journal of Irreproducible Results in 1955, Abrahams launched AIR, which now sponsors the annual Ig Nobel events. Last year's cosponsors were the Harvard Computer Society and the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association. [PHOTO: Nobel laureates Dudley Herschbach, Richard Roberts, and William Lipscomb joined The Nicola Hawkins Dancers in performing the 'Momentum and Spin' movement of The Interpretive Dance of the Electrons during the 1996 Ig Nobel ceremony. Source: John Naian/Annals of Improbable Research] As in the previous events, award presentations at the "Seventh First Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony" were interrupted periodically for "Heisenberg Certainty Lectures" (named for that pillar of modern physics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle developed by Nobel laureate Werner Karl Heisenberg), which are delivered by the Nobel laureates and other Ig dignitaries. The only certainty about these lectures is that they can last no more than 30 seconds. If they exceed that, the speaker is whistled off the stage by a referee. During the 1994 ceremony, Nobel laureate Lipscomb showed that true genius can overcome any restriction. He dedicated his Heisenberg Certainty Lecture to the US Congress: "If your position is everywhere, your momentum is zero." Nobel laureates also take part in song and dance and other shenanigans, including the annual "Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobel-Laureate Contest." Comparing Apples and Oranges Often called "the Mad Magazine of science," AIR and its free monthly online supplement, called MiniAIR, which can be accessed via the Internet (http://www.improb.com), have an erudite following of "AIRheads" who contribute material as eagerly as they read it. The print and online journals publish both fictitious and genuine science; often it is not clear which is which. "The material is intended to be humorous and/or educational, and sometimes is," Abrahams said. Some of his favorites-such as "The Aerodynamics of Potato Chips" and "Apples and Oranges: A Spectrographic Comparison"-have been recycled in the book, The Best of Annals of Improbable Research (New York, NY: WH Freeman & Co; 1997). Abrahams, a 42-year-old former computer software designer, now Puck of science, is a frequent guest on talk shows and college campuses around the country, where his deadpan expression effectively hides a tongue that's virtually glued to his cheek as he speaks. Asked how Ig Nobel winners are nominated, he replies "mostly by AIRheads who submit their favorite candidates." So far, only one prize went to scientists who nominated themselves (Norwegians Anders Barheim, MD, and Hogne Sandvik, MD, of the University of Bergen for their BMJ study on stimulating the appetite of leeches; see sidebar), although other forms of self-promotion have brought several scientists Ig Nobel glory. "Science by press release is one good way to bring yourself to the attention of the Ig Nobel Board of Governors," Abrahams said. "Researchers who attempt an end run around the peer review process of science might as well be tacking an 'Ig me' sign on their backs." Asked if any scientists or their lawyers ever threatened to sue, he says, "It's an odd thing. No." Abrahams stresses that the Ig Nobel awards are presented in good-natured fun and are never meant to ridicule anyone. Well, hardly ever. The awards are "an effective way to get people interested in science, which they often think is scary or yucky," he said. "It's an underhanded way of seducing people into thinking about science. Although some awards may sound critical, they usually just quote, without comment, the research in question. Scientists can nominate themselves for the coveted awards. They can also nominate their enemies." According to Abrahams, science that seems absurd can have considerable merit. He cites the research of the Norwegian physicians who won the 1996 Ig Nobel in biology for their study of how garlic, ale, and sour cream affect the appetite of leeches. "This research may sound sophomoric, but there's purpose behind it, since leeches are again being used in medicine. Suppose you're doing microsurgery to reattach a finger; what do you do if your leech is not hungry? The conventional wisdom from 150 years ago-when doctors used lots of leeches-was that garlic, ale, or sour cream stimulates the creatures' appetite. Barheim and Sandvik set out to advance the cause of medicine by testing that wisdom. They discovered that beer makes leeches lazy and undisciplined, much the way it affects us, and, while garlic attracts the little bloodsuckers, it also kills them. So much for traditional medical wisdom." "Many scientific discoveries originally appeared as irrelevant as the leech study may today," Abrahams said. "One hundred plus years ago, doctors were hooted out of medicine for saying you should wash your hands before surgery. Today, in many hospitals it's not unusual to find several doctors who wash their hands before surgery. Just because something is funny does not mean it's bad. But it doesn't mean it's not bad, either." Like a Fun House Mirror Some critics as well as supporters say that the Ig Nobel Board of Governors has a definite humanist, even liberal, agenda. "The awards committee would hesitate to ever say it's trying to make a statement, or that it's even capable of making a statement," Abrahams insists. The humor in an Ig Nobel award should not depend on any political or philosophical viewpoint. It doesn't matter what one thinks of the nation's war on drugs to see how deserving Texas State Senator Bob Glasgow was for his 1994 prize in chemistry, which was awarded in recognition of his sponsorship of an antidrug law that makes it illegal to purchase test tubes, flasks, beakers, or other laboratory glassware without a permit. The awards serve to remind scientists not to cling too closely to any sacred cows. "To do so risks being mooed if not gored at the next Ig Nobel prize ceremony," Abrahams said. The 1998 Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony will be held at Harvard University's Sanders Theatre on Thursday, October 8. Nominations for the 1998 prizes are still being accepted. More information may be obtained via AIR's Web site; by telephone, (617) 491-4437; or by mail at AIR, PO Box 380853, Cambridge, MA 02238. In establishing the Ig Nobels, Abrahams has created a mirror image of the Nobel Prize and its august ceremony. It's a fun house mirror that scientists can hold up for a unique look at the scientific enterprise. Some may not like what they see, but others are busy folding paper into airplanes and waiting for the next show to begin. -by Andrew A. Skolnick (JAMA. 1998;279:979-981) ---------------------------------------------------------- � 1995-1998 American Medical Association. All rights reserved.