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No. 1171:
The Ignobel Prizes

Today, a concern about satire. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Here in my New York Times, Philip Hilts tells about the 1996 IgNobel Prizes, recently held in Memorial Hall on the Harvard Campus. Memorial Hall is a grand old Charles Adamsish castle of red brick. It's wonderfully appropriate to the ceremony.

The awards are sponsored by a journal called The Annals of Improbable Research. An IgNobel Prize recognizes a research result that cannot (or should not) be reproduced.

My favorite is the IgNobel Prize in Medicine. It went to the tobacco representatives who came before Congress to announce their finding that tobacco is not addictive. The IgNobel Peace Prize went to the President of France, who observed the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb with a series of A-bomb tests in the Pacific.

The IgNobel Prize for Literature went to editors of the Journal of Social Text. In another episode I talk about the paper they published: "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." It was a hoax, a sendup of postmodern analysis. The author claimed to prove that reality doesn't exist! The editors, taken in by the incomprehensible language, figured it had to be important.

This year, as usual, winners were invited to attend. But this year, for the first time, one actually came. Harold Moi came all the way from Oslo to receive the IgNobel Public Health Prize. He'd co-authored a paper in the journal, Genitourinary Medicine. The title was "Transmission of Gonorrhea Through an Inflatable Doll."

Two other winners, also from Norway, couldn't come but they sent a videotaped acceptance speech to the Norwegian consul in Boston who presented it for them. Their paper, "Effect of Ale, Garlic and Soured Cream on the Appetite of Leeches," won the IgNobel Prize in Biology. The authors said they were accepting on behalf of their subjects -- who were in no position to accept themselves.

Once awardees choose to play the game, the humor suffers in an odd way. Good scientists know perfectly well that new ideas look strange. I'm reminded of how, years ago, Senator Proxmire awarded one of his Golden Fleece awards to an engineer who'd won a big grant to create six-legged walking robots. It sounded foolish, but six-legged locomotion is an essential problem in practical robotics. The Golden Fleece Awards died of their own shortsightedness soon after.

The dishonesty of the tobacco industry makes a perfectly viable target for this sort of thing. But any legitimate original research also looks silly when we compare it with things as they are. Satire is a scatter gun that takes down the guilty and innocent together. The IgNobel Prizes are great fun, but sorting quality from foolishness is a far subtler and more difficult business that we have to carry out quietly -- every day.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Hilts. P. J., Presenting the IgNobles, UnPrizes Satirizing Weak Science. New York Times, National Report, Saturday, October 5, 1996, p. 7.

The Engines episode on the postmodern hoax is No. 1126.