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These awards are Ig Nobel

Dubious achievements need recognition too, and their inventors get it during this sendup of the real ceremony.

October 03, 2003|Rosie Mestel | Times Staff Writer

Some achievements stir the spirit, save lives or lay bare deep, scientific truths.

Other people achieve greatness in a different way -- such as the mathematician who revealed why toast falls butter side down, the man who created an "infidelity detection spray" to be applied to a spouse's underwear, and the inventors of a childbirth table that is rotated at high speed so that centrifugal forces can aid in the birthing process.

All are past recipients of the Ig Nobel Prize, a tongue-in-cheek sendup of the serious Nobel ceremonies in Stockholm.

A raucous event Thursday night at Harvard University honored the latest crop of Ig Nobel awardees, who had traveled from Europe, Australia, Japan and parts of the U.S. to accept their prizes. The world's most thorough cataloger of human behavior at stop signs rubbed shoulders with a scholar of chickens' aesthetic preferences and a man who has made it possible to rent an entire country for a wedding or business meeting.

"We're thrilled to win," said John Culvenor of Melbourne, Australia, who accepted the Ig Nobel Prize in Physics on behalf of his co-workers for a study titled "An Analysis of the Forces Required to Drag Sheep Over Various Surfaces." (The team found it is easier to drag a sheep down a slope than up a slope.)

It isn't easy to classify the types of feats deserving an Ig Nobel, said Marc Abrahams, the man behind the ceremony, an annual event since 1991. "But you know them when you see them," he said.

It was obvious, for example, that John W. Trinkaus was a shoo-in for this year's Ig Nobel Prize in Literature. Over a period of decades, the former associate dean of business at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York, published more than 80 scholarly articles on such matters as the attitude of people toward Brussels sprouts, the colors folks favor in sport shoes, whether they wear the peak of baseball caps to the fore or rear and how many people stop at stop signs or adhere to the item limits in supermarket express checkout lanes. ("It's getting worse," he commented darkly.)

Another Ig Nobel natural was Lal Bihari, founder of the Assn. of Dead People and winner of this year's Ig Nobel Peace Prize. Bihari was declared legally dead by the Indian government in 1975 and only became alive again after an 18-year fight during which he did everything possible to gain attention, including running for office, suing people and attempting to get arrested.

Trinkaus and Bihari were both tickled to get awards. But recipients are not always amused, Abrahams said -- such as the South African inventors of a car security system that set off flamethrowers when the car was disturbed. (It was banned as soon as it went on sale.) Also mystified was a winner who had devised a system to project television images on a car windshield.

"He could not understand why anyone would find his invention funny," Abrahams said.

Despite their wacky-sounding nature, many studies receiving Ig Nobels are serious. Culvenor, for instance, said that sheep shearers in Australia drag sheep around a lot and suffer injuries as a result, so it makes sense to study ways to minimize stresses. The same is true for past studies -- such as the one investigating injuries sustained from falling coconuts and another revealing that farmed male ostriches find their human captors more sexually alluring than females of their own species.

Other 2003 Ig Nobel winners include:

* Engineering: The late John Paul Stapp, the late Edward A. Murphy Jr. and George Nichols, a trio of scientists working at Edwards Air Force Base who in 1949 came up with Murphy's famous Law, short-handed as: "If anything can go wrong, it will."

* Medicine: British neuropsychologist Eleanor Maguire and colleagues for brain-imaging studies of London taxi drivers.

* Psychology: Phil Zimbardo of Stanford and colleagues for a paper titled "Politicians' Uniquely Simple Personalities."

* Economics: Karl Schwaerzler, an events marketer who has made it possible to rent the entire country of Liechtenstein for a weekend event.

* Biology: Kees Moeliker, of the Natuurmusem in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, for his scholarly description of questionable sexual behavior in a duck: "The First Case of Homosexual Necrophilia in the Mallard Anas Platyrhynchos (Aves: Anatidae)."

* Interdisciplinary Research: Animal behaviorists from the University of Stockholm, who have discovered that "Chickens Prefer Beautiful Humans."

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