“GENIUS,” SAID Thomas Alva Edison, “is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration.” One may take it this formula varied between certain of his creations - the light bulb, say, and the concrete piano.
Edison never received a Nobel Prize; he turned down the Physics nomination in 1915 rather than share it with his rival, Nikola Tesla. But his lesser-known innovations would surely have been in the running for a different yet parallel form of recognition, had it only existed then.
The Ig Nobel Prizes did not exist, so it was necessary to invent them. The same may not always be said of the enterprises they honour, and that is rather the point of them. Established by the “science humour” magazine, Annals Of Improbable Research (AIR), they acknowledge work which “cannot or should not be reproduced.”
The Ig Nobels are not to be confused with the better-known Darwin Awards, which commemorate those idiots who have improved humanity's gene pool by removing themselves from it in spectacular fashion. The Darwins are notional, and essentially constitute a bravura act of sarcasm. The Ig Nobels are actual, and so are the achievements they celebrate. This year the allegedly “glittering” ceremony will take place on October 3, at Harvard University's Sanders Theatre. Before a 1200 strong audience, genuine and - it must be said - very sporting Nobel laureates will hand out “Igs” in categories which loosely mirror those of the Nobels proper.
The first Igs, in 1991, were inclined towards satire. The Peace Prize went to Edward Teller, father of the H-bomb; the Economics Prize to convicted junk-bond fraudster, Michael Milken; and a prize in Education was allotted to Dan Quayle, the vice-president who revealed to a nation of schoolchildren a new way to spell “potatoe”. The Igs have since developed a more subtle purpose than mere mockery. They serve to highlight the unusual, the original and the endearingly wayward. While Big Science seldom wants for publicity, the Igs bravely shine a spotlight upon Little Science, Weird Science and, frankly, Bad Science.
Over the past decade, snake oil salesmen and research grant time wasters have all received their Ig Nobel due. A Medicine Prize went to a study, backed by Muzak Ltd, claiming that elevator music boosts the immune system. John Bockris of Texas A&M University was sardonically acknowledged in the Physics category for his efforts in cold fusion and alchemy, which were so pioneering they are unlikely ever to be duplicated anywhere. Dr Mara Sidoli won the Literature Prize for her paper in the Journal of Analytical Psychology entitled “Farting As A Defence Against Unspeakable Dread.”
Maybe Dr Sidoli in turn inspired the inventor and entrepreneur Buck Weimar, who took a Biology Prize for Under-Ease - his airtight underwear fitted with a charcoal flatulence filter. Mr Weimar ranks among those Ig Nobel laureates who are simply ahead of their time, or possibly at a tangent to it. Many of them are authentic visionaries, in a peculiar way.
Who would contest the Chemistry Prize awarded to an Italian team from the University of Pisa? They discovered that, biochemically
|| speaking, romantic love is identical to severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. This falls into the “Aha! I Knew It” school of science, as does the brilliant report from David Dunning and Justin Krueger, “Unskilled And Unaware Of it”. The good doctors took the Psychology Prize for demonstrating that, while ability leads to insecurity, ineptitude breeds confidence: “Not only do [the incapable] reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but also their incompetence robs them of the ability to realise it.” When you think about it, Dunning and Krueger have usefully accounted for nine-tenths of everything that happens in the world.|
Further Ig Nobel-winning papers from the more recondite corners of academe include “Injuries Due To Falling Coconuts” “Chicken Plucking as Measure of Tornado Wind Speed” and “Salmonella Excretion in Joy-Riding Pigs”. One authoritative study, “That Gunk On Your Car”, painstakingly catalogued insects crushed by windscreens. Another must have demanded some truly dedicated research, titled as it was, “On the Comparative Palatability of Some Dry-Season Tadpoles from Costa Rica.” Hats off to the Japanese boffins behind “Pigeons' Discrimination of Paintings by Monet and Picasso”, which showed that the birdbrains don't know a lot about art, but they know what they like.
The Igs also honour the Edisons of our day. Troy Hurbutise devised and personally tested a grizzly bear-proof suit, which may be just the thing in his native Ontario. A South African duo received the Peace Prize for their flame-throwing car alarm. TV pitchman Ron Popeil was recognised for his Inside-The-Shell-Egg-Scrambler. Jay Schiffman, who came up with a TV projector for use while driving, shared his prize with the Michigan state legislature, which declared it legal.
Other than the USA, the most consistently garlanded nation is our own, proving that British ingenuity is not dead by a long chalk. The Scottish Medical Journal's report, “The Collapse Of Toilets In Glasgow', could not fail to seize the judges' attention, or anyone else's - although it did suggest a worrying new connotation of the term “Brain Drain”. In the same year, 2000, the Royal Navy snaffled the Peace Prize for withdrawing live shells from training exercises, and ordering its sailors to shout, “Bang!” The year before, the Physics Prize was justly shared between two UK scholars, the first of whom had perfected a drip-free teapot spout, while the second had calculated the perfect biscuit-dunking technique.
The biscuit dunker, Dr Len Fisher, attended the ceremony, and delivered what Marc Abrahams, editor of AIR, describes as, “A wonderful acceptance speech. The Ig Nobels allow us to marvel at the wonders of human imagination, initiative and resolve,” adds Abrahams, “and this is another good year for the UK. The winners list is kept secret until the ceremony, but I can tell you that the UK has more than one winner, and that those winners are going to attend.”
Unlike the 1993 Literature Prize recipients: the 976 co-authors of a single medical study who outnumbered its pages by a hundred to one. Were it not for the Ig Nobels, they might have languished in the obscurity which, to be honest, they probably deserve.