|What Is This Ig?
by Marc Abrahams
© 1999 Marc Abrahams
|This essay was written for HMSBeagle,
where it originally appeared on October 1, 1999 , in Issue 63
Some people covet it, others flee from it. Some see it
as a hallmark of civilization, others as a scuff mark. Some laugh with
it, others laugh at it. Many praise it, a few condemn it, others are just
mystified. And many people are madly in love with it.
It is the Ig Nobel Prize.
This is the ninth year we've been awarding Ig Nobel Prizes.
Perhaps you have been lucky enough to win one. That's not quite as improbable
as it may sound: many of the 976 cowinners of the 1993 Ig Nobel Literature
Prize may still be unaware of their good fortune. It's not clear whether
these individuals, who coauthored a paper that was published in the New
England Journal of Medicine (vol. 329, no. 10), ever exchange information
or hellos, or have even heard each others' names spoken. Their paper, by
the way, was remarkable for having 100 times as many authors as pages -
that is what won them the prize.
Each year, ten Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded. The selection
criterion is simple. The prizes are for "achievements that cannot or should
not be reproduced." Examine that phrase carefully. It covers a lot of ground.
It says nothing as to whether a thing is good or bad, commendable or pernicious.
For example: after something has been discovered or created,
no one - anyone, anywhere, ever - can later become the first to have made
that discovery or creation. The "firstness" cannot be repeated. Thus, Don
Featherstone (Ig Nobel Art Prize, 1996), the creator of the plastic pink
flamingo, clearly qualifies under the "cannot be repeated" clause.
Similarly, Bijan Pakzad (Ig Nobel Chemistry Prize, 1995),
the inventor of DNA cologne (which comes in a triple-helix glass bottle,
and is marketed with the explanation "Product does not contain deoxyribonucleic
acid") also qualifies under the "cannot be repeated" clause.
And Anders Barheim and Hogne Sandvik (Ig Nobel Biology
Prize, 1996), who discovered that sour cream stimulates the appetite of
leaches, but that beer intoxicates the creatures and garlic often kills
them, clearly qualify under the "cannot be repeated" clause.
I raise this matter of good or bad, because the world
in general seems to enjoy classifying things as being either one or
the other. The Ig Nobel Prizes aside, most prizes, in most places, for
most purposes are clearly designed to sanctify the goodness or badness
of the recipients. Olympic medals go to very good athletes. Worst-dressed
prizes go to badly dressed celebrities. Nobel Prizes go to scientists,
writers, and others who excel. Occasional mistakes and omissions happen,
sure, but these prizes, and most others, are meant to honor the extremes
of humanity - those whose achievements should be seen as very good or very
The Ig Nobel Prize isn't like that. The Ig, as it is known,
honors the great muddle in which most of us exist much of the time. Life
is confusing. Good and bad get all mixed up. Yin can be hard to distinguish
from yang. Ditto for data from artifact and, sometimes, up from down.
Most people go through life without ever being awarded
a great, puffy prize to acknowledge that, yes, they have done something.
That's why we award Ig Nobel Prizes. If you win one, it signifies to one
and all that you have done some thing. What that thing is may be hard to
explain - may even be totally inexplicable. Whether your achievement is
for the public good or bad may be difficult or even painful to explain.
But the fact is,
you did it, and have been recognized for doing
it. Let others make of that recognition what they will.
Every year, of the ten new Ig Nobel Prizes, about half
are awarded for things that most people would say are commendable - if
perhaps goofy. The other half go for things that are, in some people's
eyes, less commendable.
All such judgments are entirely up to each observer. This
makes the Prizes potentially useful in a very nice, and very powerful,
Say you have done something that you - and some other
people - believe to be very, very good, and maybe even very, very important.
But most people don't recognize its importance. Worse, most people don't
even recognize its existence. It's different from what they expect, or
what they have ever run across. What you have, you believe, is a breakthrough.
The classic sequence of events for any breakthrough is:
(1) Most people don't recognize its existence; then
(2) When they do recognize it, their immediate reaction
is to laugh or scoff at it; then
(3) Some of those people become curious about this thing
that they are laughing at, and then think about it, and so come to appreciate
its true worth.
So there you have a nice little benefit of the Ig Nobel
Prizes. If you've done something people chuckle at, and you win an Ig,
then more people will hear about it. And maybe some of those people will
also become curious, and will think about what you've accomplished, and
fall in love with it.
Clearly, this has happened with Peter Fong's experiment
in which he fed Prozac to clams (Ig Nobel Biology Prize, 1998), Robert
Matthews's explication of whether buttered toast always falls on the buttered
side (Ig Nobel Physics Prize, 1996), Harold Hillman's report on "The Possible
Pain Experienced during Execution by Different Methods" (Ig Nobel Peace
Prize, 1997), and Jerald Bain and Kerry Siminoski's examination of "The
Relationship among Height, Penile Length, and Foot Size" (Ig Nobel Statistics
Scrutiny can, of course, cut two ways. Your great master
stroke may strike some as being less than masterly. So it goes, and so
has it gone, on occasion, for Jacques Benveniste (Ig Nobel Chemistry Prize,
1991 and 1998) and his discoveries that water molecules remember things
and that the memories can be transmitted over telephone lines; for Louis
Kervran (Ig Nobel Physics Prize, 1993) and his discovery that the calcium
in chickens' eggshells is created by a process of cold fusion; for Shigeru
Watanabe, Junko Sakamoto, and Masumi Wakita (Ig Nobel Psychology Prize,
1995) and their achievement in training pigeons to discriminate between
the paintings of Picasso and those of Monet; and for Richard Seed (Ig Nobel
Economics Prize, 1997) and his plan to clone himself and other human beings.
So far as I am aware, winning an Ig has in no way dimmed the prospects
for any of these individuals to win a Nobel Prize.
This raises one other matter that should mentioned. The
Ig Nobel Board of Governors follows the same dictum that is said to inspire
physicians: "First, do no harm."
There are in this world people who are quick to judge,
condemn, and punish others. Some of these unhappy people are in positions
of authority and might be inclined to, say, punish and ridicule someone
in their lab who wins a goofy, meaningless prize. Because we know that
such people exist, the Ig Nobel Board of Governors consults with scientists
who are under strong consideration for an Ig, to ask whether winning might
in any way cause them professional difficulties. In cases where there appears
to be a genuine risk, the Prize is not awarded to that person, but
goes instead to some other, equally worthy soul. To date, this has happened
in about six cases.
Much more common is the case where an individual or a
group pleads long and loud to receive an Ig. This has happened more times
than we can count. So far, only one Prize has gone to such seekers (the
prize to the aforementioned team of Barheim and Sandvik). But who can say
what the future has in store?
Marc Abrahams is editor of the Annals
of Improbable Research and chairman of the Ig
Nobel Board of Governors.