Self-Perfuming Suits, and Other Award-Winning Weird Science

Ig Nobel Prizes to be Awarded at Harvard


Oct. 4, 2006 —  Perhaps one moral of modern American culture is this: If you're going to fail, you might as well be a spectacular failure. Call it the "William Hung Rule."

But let's not confuse winners of the Ig Nobel Prize — a satirical answer to the Nobel Prize — given out each year at Harvard University — with failures. Some have turned their wacky inventions into big bucks, while other honorees continue as respected scientists.

Before self-perfuming suits hit stores in South Korea, and before Beano became recognized as a leading treatment for flatulence — the inventors of these products earned Ig Nobel honors.

"Our winners make you laugh — but they also make you think," says Marc Abrahams, chief organizer of the event and author of "The Ig Nobel Prizes 2" (Dutton).

Of course, time hasn't vindicated every Ig Nobel winner. But whether they've made a fortune off their dubious achievements or not, on Thursday night, this year's crop of Ig Nobel winners will be called before an audience of real Nobel winners and Harvard University students, a good many of them in Groucho glasses.

The audience will throw paper airplanes, and tease the winners mercilessly. And, hard as it is to believe, winners come from all over the world to collect their trophies — each one handcrafted and "made of exceedingly cheap material designed to fall apart within four weeks."

Dirty Birds and Pet Washing Machines

"We're not insulted," said Jonathan Wyatt, part of a team of Scottish researchers who delivered their 2000 Ig Nobel-winning paper, "The Collapse of Toilets in Glasgow."

"Between us, we've published more than 70 research papers. This is the only one that's given us any publicity at all."

Last year's honorees included the inventor of an alarm clock that runs away and hides repeatedly; and the authors of the report "Pressures Produced When Penguins Pooh — Calculations on Avian Defecation."

Other Ig Nobel winners may yet make history. The Spinning Birthing Table — a devise that promised to reduce labor pains through centrifugal force — never made it into production.

Eduardo Segura of Spain took his share of ribbing in 2002, when he rolled out his side-loading machine to wash pets. Pooches could be automatically sprayed with water, shampooed and — unlike a lost sock — they wouldn't go astray in the dryer.

But now, at Colorado's Pet World pet spa in Lakewood, animal lovers are bringing their furry friends in for a 37-nozzle machine wash, all done with natural cleaning ingredients and over in a four-minute shake.

This year's crop of winners has yet to be announced. As editor of Harvard's "Annals of Improbable Research," Abrahams is one of the chief organizers of the event, and promises, "There's a theme among the winners — cheese, noise, and unusual remedies for ailments."

Dutch researcher Kees Moeliker will be among the past winners who will be on hand for this year's festivities. His landmark paper, "The First Case of Homosexual Necrophilia in Mallard Ducks," proved that there really are a lot of sick birds out there — and he is now considered a world renowned expert in documenting cases of fowl perversion.

"Luckily, my colleagues have a great sense of humor," says Moeliker, who continues as curator of birds at Holland's prestigious Natuurmuseum Rotterdam, noting that another researcher has now observed similar necrophilia in squirrels.

Moeliker recently examined the tendency of some birds to repeatedly fly into a window, crash, and then fly into that same window again and again. It's a vicious circle of apparent self-abuse that he's documenting for his latest study, "Decapitation Behavior in Black Crows," which he also calls, "Head-Banging Bluebirds."

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at The Wolf Files is published on Tuesdays.