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Ig Nobels raise a welcome smile

Boston

The organizers of the Ig Nobel prize ceremony, held to reward research “that cannot or should not be reproduced”, faced a difficult decision this year. Should this light-hearted event be cancelled in view of the atrocities of 11 September? After some deliberation, the show went on — to the approval of a raucous crowd of 1,200 who gathered on 4 October in Harvard University's Sanders Theatre.

“There was a period of time shortly after the terrorist attack when it was difficult to think about things of consequence, let alone something like this,” says Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research and the Ig Nobels' master of ceremonies. “But I heard from a lot of people who wanted us to do it. I was both surprised and happy.”

Nobel laureates who were asked to take part had mixed feelings. “I personally cannot muster any great enthusiasm for the Igs under the circumstances,” Boston University physicist Sheldon Glashow told Nature. But other laureates, including Harvard chemist Dudley Herschbach, elected to participate. “I don't think it's disrespectful to move on and treat people to some fun,” he says.

In the event, the tone was anything but sombre. The cast of Nobel laureates engaged in the usual shenanigans, singing in a première of an opera, The Wedding Complex, that culminated in the 60-second wedding of two geologists, Lisa Danielson and Will Stefanov of Arizona State University.

As for the main act, Peter Barss of McGill University in Canada won the medicine prize for studying injuries caused by falling coconuts, while Chittaranjan Andrade and B. S. Srihari of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience in Bangalore snared the public-health prize for discovering that nose-picking is a common activity among adolescents. The psychology prize went to Lawrence Sherman of Miami University in Ohio for his ecological study of glee in preschool children, and Buck Weimer of Pueblo, Colorado, won the biology prize for inventing airtight underwear fitted with charcoal filters to remove foul-smelling gases.

John Keogh of Hawthorn in Victoria, Australia, was awarded the technology prize for patenting the wheel, sharing the honour with the Australian patent office. David Schmidt of the University of Massachusetts won the physics prize for considering why shower curtains billow inwards. And Michigan-based televangelists Jack and Rexella Van Impe earned the astrophysics prize for showing that black holes fulfil all the technical requirements of hell. The Van Impes did not attend the ceremony, but Massachusetts Institute of Technology astrophysicist Walter Lewin, accepting temporary custody of their award, said the finding “will force us to rethink all of our ideas about black holes”.

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Nadis, S. Ig Nobels raise a welcome smile. Nature 413, 554 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1038/35098208

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