- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 14, 2006


By Marc Abrahams

Dutton, $18.95, 261 pages


Intentionally making people laugh is not generally one of the functions of scientific journals. One of the few exceptions is Annals of Improbable Research, a publication that encourages readers to laugh out loud at some of the absurdities performed in the supposed pursuit of scientific knowledge.

The magazine’s cofounder and editor is Marc Abrahams, a Harvard-educated applied mathematician, whose entrepreneurial talents have come to full flower in the institution of the Ig Nobel Prizes, an annual tradition which has become firmly established since the first Igs were awarded in 1991.

These tributes to indubitably dubious achievement are awarded at a ceremony held at Harvard University every October, which is attended by a sellout audience crowd of 1,200, of whom many, in Mr. Abrahams’s words, “spend the entire evening wafting paper airplanes at the stage.” The sole criterion for selecting an Ig winner, for which over 5,000 nominations are received annually from whoever feels a piece of work is worthy, is that “it first makes people LAUGH, and then makes them THINK.’

The current volume is the second selection taken from the Ig Nobel archives, and provides a rich selection of how far human ingenuity and persistence can be taken in the pursuit of knowledge of what most might consider questionable utility. For example, Troy Hurtubise of North Bay, Ontario, was awarded the 1998 Ig in Safety Engineering (there are 10 prizes each year, providing considerable freedom to choose notable achievements in diverse directions) for “developing and personally testing a suit of armor that is impervious to grizzly bears.”

In fact, the narrative demonstrates that Mr. Hurtubise’s achievements are even more impressive than the citation just quoted. His original suit, constructed of “titanium, duct tape, hockey pads and other scrounged materials” not only survived an encounter with a grizzly bear, but also withstood being rammed 18 times by a three-ton truck traveling at 30 mph.

A later version of the armor surviving an assault by a 10-foot Kodiak bear weighing 12,000 lb, an even more fearsome sub species than the common grizzly. When Mr. Hurtubise approached the Kodiak bear chosen to test the suit’s effectiveness, the terrified beast cowered in the corner for 10 minutes before it tentatively approached him.

And Mr. Hurtubise survived a test of an even more advanced version of his bear armor when a 20?ton front end loader crashed his suit, with him inside, into and right through a brick wall. Mr. Hurtubise, alas, has had great difficulty in funding his research, and his original grizzly suit is in the hands of the bankruptcy court.

Others owe their achievement to an indefatigable curiosity. For example, John Trinkaus, emeritus professor at the Zicklin School of Business at New York’s Baruch College, won the Ig Nobel Prize for Literature for his 80+ quantified reports on such phenomena as what fraction of young people wear their baseball caps backward, what fraction of shoppers in supermarket express lines exceed the maximum number of permitted items and what fraction of drivers leave the snow on their cars’ roofs after a snowstorm.

Mr. Trinkaus revisited some of these topics several times to see how the results changed over the years, but he scrupulously refrains from any interpretation or explanation of the data he carefully accumulates.

Another group of Ig Nobel laureates caught Mr. Abrahams’s eye because the subjects they sought to investigate are intrinsically funny, even though the results of their laugh-inducing research may actually have practical consequences.

For example, Yukio Hirose discovered the reason that a certain statue of a Japanese warrior, unlike virtually every other statue in the world, was untouched by pigeon droppings. His answer: The statue is made from an unusual bronze alloy that contains arsenic.

Another example of comical chemistry that actually helps many people was performed by Alan Kligerman, “deviser of digestive deliverance, vanquisher of vapor, and inventor of Beano,” who won an Ig “for his pioneering work with antigas liquids that prevent bloat, gassiness, discomfort, and embarrassment.”

Before this achievement in vanquishing flatulence, Mr. Kligerman made a fortune from his development of Lactaid, which enables lactose-intolerant people to drink milk without digestive upsets. Like many of the winners (those with a healthy sense of humor), Mr. Kligerman traveled to Cambridge to accept his award in person, and regaled the audience with a pitch for his company’s newest product, CurTail, a version of Beano for dogs.

It is less easy to characterize the achievements of some of the other winners. Consider Lal Bihari of Uttar Pradesh in India, who founded the Association of Dead People to battle the impervious Indian bureaucracy that refused to recognize his existence after an unscrupulous and greedy relative had him declared dead in order to let him take possession of Mr. Bihari’s property.

This is apparently a real problem in India, which has brought tragedy to thousands of people who have been victimized by being declared legally dead and subsequently ignored by a callous and/or corrupt legal system. Mr. Bihari’s search for justice via legal reincarnation took him close to 20 years of effort.

Finally, some of the awards simply record the Ig Nobel committee’s taste in humor, which accounts for one earned by the consumers of Spam. Here, one detects a whiff of Cambridge, Mass. political correctness.

This seems to be the only reason that former Vice President Dan Quayle was awarded an Ig, but not his successor, Al Gore, despite the far larger record of risible remarks and pseudo-profound piffle made by the latter.

All in all, though, the book provides a welcome opportunity to observe the strange directions in which intellectual curiosity can lead those who possess more than the usual quota.

Jeffrey Marsh has written widely on scientific topics and public issues ranging from nuclear strategy to social policy.

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