Ig Nobel Prize Update

by Marc Abrahams

Nominations for the 1993 Ig Nobel Prizes are pouring into Cambridge. Here is a brief glimpse at some of the names and ideas being bandied about at this early date. The names of the actual winners, of course, will remain a closely guarded secret until the night of the ceremony.

History of the Prizes

Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded each year (more or less) to honor irreproducible achievements in science and other areas of human endeavor. The first prizes were presented by the Journal of Irreproducible Results (JIR) in 1968. The winners have since been consigned to obscurity, along with their names. In 1991, JIR and the MIT Museum jointly sponsored the first public ceremony. The Third First Annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony will be held at Kresge Auditorum on the evening of Thursday, October 7, 1993. [For information about the ceremony, please call the MIT Museum at (617) 253-4422.]

Linus Pauling's Take on the Ig

Linus Pauling is widely regarded as one of the giants in the history of science. He has been called the father of modern chemistry, and his pioneering inquiries have ranged wide and far in the disciplines of biology, physics and medicine. Dr. Pauling is the only person who has received two undivided Nobel Prizes. In 1954 he received the Nobel prize for chemistry for his work on the nature of the chemical bond and its application to the structure of complex substances. In 1962 he received the Nobel peace prize for his efforts to bring about the treaty banning tests of atomic explosives in the atmosphere. Dr. Pauling is also a member of the JIR editorial board. He spoke via telephone from his office at the Linus Pauling Institute in Palo Alto, California.

Q. Each year the Journal of Irreproducible Results presents Ig Nobel prizes to people whose achievements cannot or should not be reproduced. Who would you nominate to win an Ig Nobel prize?

A. Well of course I'd be pleased to have [Edward] Teller get a second Ig Nobel prize so he could become listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the person who's achieved the most Ig Nobel prizes. [Author's note: Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb and the foremost proponent of the "star wars" missile defense system, was awarded the 1991 Ig Nobel peace prize. The citation said that Teller had "changed the meaning of peace as we know it."]

Q. Anyone else come to mind?

A. Well, let me see. In personal science, Dr. Victor Herbert I think deserves such a prize. He was at Hahnemann and got fired because he got in a fistfight with the dean. He - Victor Herbert - is considered to be a great authority on vitamins, always testifying on vitamin cases, and he was on the food and drug board that National Academy president Frank Press fired when they brought in their report that the RDA's [Recommended Daily Amounts] be decreased. Then when the National Academy of Sciences had a new committee and got out a new report, he sued them for using some material that he had written - for plagiarism. I think that case has been thrown out of court.

And he in a sense is responsible for my having spent more than 20 years in this vitamin field. He irritated me so much about 1969 that I sat down and wrote my book Vitamin C and the Common Cold. Well, Victor Herbert is famous among orthomolecular nutritionists and physicians. You expect the Food and Drug Administration to be quoting him by just reading the reports, so they quote him as authority for statements that I think are just not true. Mr. Herbert seems to me to be a really good candidate.

Q. Anybody else?

A. Well, there's an anonymous referee for Physical Review Letters who said that a paper that I wrote should be turned down, a paper in which I talked about the cluster of nucleons revolving about a central sphere. He said a structure of that sort is impossible because quantum mechanics requires that the normal state (or any other state) be either symmetric or antisymmetric. So I wrote to the editor and said: "Here, this fellow doesn't understand quantum mechanics, and you're using him as a referee! He would say that a molecule of hydrogen chloride, for example, couldn't exist." I didn't get any reply to that from the editor.

The Public Speaks

Nobel laureates (as opposed to Ig Nobel laureates, who are prohibited from filing nominations) have been very active in identifying and nominating potential Ig winners. Professor Sheldon Glashow of Harvard, a rambunctious physics Nobel laureate who has participated in and helped disrupt each of the past two Ig Nobel ceremonies, explained the criteria in 1991. "There are many people out there who believe they are deserving of recognition," Glashow told a Boston Globe reporter.

Other nominations have come from scientists, doctors, teachers, preachers, carpenters, cooks, cleaners, politicians, musicians, electricians, engineers, brakemen, ticket vendors, coaches, athletes, aesthetes, police, fire and emergency medical personnel, steamfitters, dogsitters, and other spirited public citizens.

As happens every year, many people were nominated by their spouses and/or by people they supervise professionally.

Several pairs of "twinned" nominations were received -- each party nominated the other, to all appearances independently.

All the living presidents and vice presidents of the United States and all current members of Congress have received nominations from an appreciative public, and in many cases from their own staff. To date, politicians from 71 nations have had their names placed in nomination for 1993 prizes.

Individuals from more than two hundred institutions of higher learning, on five continents, have had their names placed in nomination. Faculty and staff at MIT have received a disproportionate share of the nominations from academia. A pattern seems to be apparent: faculty nominate administrators and administrators nominate faculty. Four hundred individual students have also been nominated "for their contributions to knowledge."

The Ig Nobel Committee has been criticized for being both secretive and cavalier in discussing potential Ig winners. This article has been an attempt to allay the public's concerns on both scores.