What is clear is that Vonnegut’s groundbreaking research may have languished in undeserved obscurity but for Marc Abrahams, founder of the annual Ig Nobel Prizes for scientific achievement that “cannot or should not be reproduced”.
A prestigious gathering of genuine Nobel laureates will help present the awards at the 15th Ig Nobel ceremony to be held Thursday amid pomp, mayhem and paper planes at Harvard University.
Along with Vonnegut, previous winners of the increasingly prized Igs include authors of landmark reports on the impact of country music on suicide, the use of magnets to levitate frogs, and the effect of beer, garlic and sour cream on the appetite of leeches.
The keynote address on Thursday will be given by the 2003 Ig Nobel biology laureate Kees Moeliker, who won for documenting the first – and so far the only – recorded case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck.
Ig Nobel inspiration
Abrahams created the Ig Nobels in 1991 when, as the editor of a science magazine, he found himself inundated with requests for advice on how to garner a real Nobel prize from scientists whose work had taken them far from the scientific mainstream.
“Some of them had done things that were really staggering,” Abrahams said. “It made you laugh and then it made you think, and from the beginning that’s what this has been about.”
Two physics and two chemistry Nobel laureates will be among the presenters of 10 Ig Nobels awarded in such fields as medicine, physics, chemistry and biology, with the identities of the winners remaining a closely-guarded secret in the best traditions of the Nobel Academy in Stockholm.
Roy Glauber, a Nobel winner,
Abrahams would only divulge that the 2005 laureates came from “slightly more” than four continents. “I can’t explain that right now,” he added.
There is also an Ig Nobel Peace Prize, won last year by Daisuke Inoue, the Japanese inventor of karaoke who was cited for “providing an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other”.
The Ig Nobel board of governors – “a shadowy group,” according to Abrahams – trawls through 5000 nominations every year.
Acceptance speech limits
The winners are discreetly contacted beforehand to give them an opportunity to decline. It is a testament to the growing prestige of the event that few turn down the offer and agree to attend.
Acceptance speeches have a one-minute time limit, strictly enforced by a pre-teenage mistress of ceremonies who, when she feels the recipient has said enough, approaches the lectern and repeatedly shouts, “Please stop, I’m bored,” until they comply.
“Simple, but believe me it works,” said Abrahams. “Nobody has ever been able to withstand that.”
During the entire proceedings the audience traditionally peppers the stage with paper aeroplanes.
For the past four years, the task of sweeping the planes off the stage was happily undertaken by Roy Glauber, a professor of physics at Harvard. On Tuesday, Glauber was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on quantum optics.
“It gives people in the science world a chance to cut loose, relax and enjoy themselves,” said Abrahams. “For everyone else, it’s a chance for one evening to be part of that world and get exposed to some subjects and ideas you might never run across.”
Previous winners include doctors James Nolan, Thomas Stillwell and John Sands who shared the 1993 Ig for medicine for their painstakingly researched study: “Acute Management of the Zipper Entrapped Penis.”
And Dr Mara Sidoli of Washington DC was honoured with a literature Ig in 1998 for her pioneering essay published in the Journal of Analytical Psychology: “Farting as a Defence Against Unspeakable Dread”.