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
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
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