Irreproducible achievements finally get what they deserve

Forget Sweden. This past October crowds descended on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the first annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony. With heads raised high and tongues in cheek, a procession of pranksters and researchers set out to skewer the most ignominious accomplishments in science.

The evening was sponsored by the M.I.T. Museum and the Journal of Irreproducible Results, a humor magazine that lampoons research papers. As explained by Marc Abrahams, the editor of the Journal and master of ceremonies for the awards, the Ig Nobel Prizes are presented to persons whose work cannot — or should not — be reproduced.

Four Nobel laureates — Sheldon L. Glashow and Dudley R. Herschbach of Harvard University and Eric S. Chivian and Henry W. Kendall of M.I.T. — presided over the event, all attired in the silly hats and fake noses befitting the dignity of the occasion. Laureate Jerome I. Friedman of M.I.T. was there in spirit: he sent a slide of himself with a recorded message that congratulated the winners and added, “I hope you’re enjoying the evening as much as I am.”

The Ig Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Jacques Benveniste of the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research for his 1988 paper in Nature that claimed water had a memory for materials dissolved in it. The education award went to Vice President Dan Quayle, hailed by Abrahams as a “consumer of time and occupier of space” who had clearly demonstrated the need for a good science education.

Thomas Kyle of M.I.T. won but declined the physics prize for his paper in the Journal describing administratium, the heaviest element in existence, which consists of one neutron, eight assistant neutrons, 35 vice-neutrons and 256 assistant vice-neutrons. Kyle explained he had not actually done any of the research: in the true spirit of science, he had just signed his name to the publication.

The winner of the Ig Nobel Peace Prize was Edward Teller of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. As the father of the atom bomb and the originator of the “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative, Abrahams noted, Teller had done the most “to change the meaning of peace as we know it.”

Imprisoned junk-bond dealer Michael Milken, “to whom the world is indebted,” walked away with the laurels for economics. Erich von Daniken, author of Chariots of the Gods and other books that claim alien astronauts visited Earth in prehistory, received the prize for literature. And the prize for biology was awarded to Robert Klark Graham of the Repository for Germinal Choice in Escondido, Calif., a sperm bank that accepts deposits only from Nobel laureates and Olympic athletes.

Perhaps the most noteworthy parties overlooked by the Ig Nobel Prize committee were B. Stanley Pons of the University of Utah and Martin Fleischman of the University of Southampton, the discoverers of cold fusion. There’s always next year.

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