Big Brains Line Up for Ig Nobel Abuse

Scientists Gather From Around the World for Dubious Ig Nobel Honors

By Buck Wolf

Sept. 30, 2003 — You might say Scottish doctors wasted their time studying why people occasionally fall off toilet seats. But you can't say the doctors lack a sense of humor.

Researcher Jonathan Wyatt and two colleagues working at Glasgow's Department of Accident and Emergency crossed the Atlantic at their own expense a few years ago to let an audience of 1,200 people at Harvard University — many wearing Groucho glasses — throw paper airplanes at them and laugh as hard as they wanted.

Wyatt's no different from Drs. Chittaranjan Andrade and B.S. Srihari, who traveled to Harvard from Bangalore, India, to defend a study that proved — gasp! — that nose picking is a common activity among adolescents.

These scientists are among the select few who've been awarded the Ig Nobel Prize — awarded by Harvard students and the Annals of Improbable Research since 1991 for research that "cannot or should not be reproduced."

The 2003 Ig Nobel ceremony kicks off on Thursday, and you'd think by now that the prospect of winning such a distinction would be enough to scare away any prospective winner.

But strangely, scientists like these men, who have to raise money for their research, don't mind taking an Ig Nobel razzing. And each year, a star-studded lineup of Nobel Prize winners pay homage to this tradition, handing out prizes, as paper airplanes rule the skies.

"We're not insulted," said Wyatt after he and his colleagues delivered their report, titled, "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."

A Society of Forward-Thinking Fruitcakes

Wyatt's groundbreaking research concluded that many Glasgow toilets are very old. "We would therefore advise that the older porcelain familiar to so many of us should be treated with a certain degree of caution," he and his colleagues said.

"An obvious way of using a toilet without fear of collapse is … not to sit down, but to adopt a hovering stance," they concluded.

As these awards have become something of an Ivy League tradition, esteemed academics now break off into would-be snooty cliques such as the Harvard Bureaucracy Club, Fruitcakes for a Better Tomorrow, the Society of Bearded Men, Non-Extremists for Moderate Change in Finland, and the Society for the Preservation of Slide Rules.

"We're keeping this year's winners a secret. All we can say [about] their work is that they will follow in the Ig Nobel tradition. Their work will make you laugh at first … and then make you think," says Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, who hosts the ceremony.