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Night Crawler 

Wednesday, Apr 22 1998
The Annals of Improbable Research -- on Tour!
Every year, nearly 2,000 mad scientists and their cohorts converge on Harvard University for the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony -- an irreverent celebration of science, humor, and humanity conceived by Marc Abrahams, co-founder and editor of the bimonthly Annals of Improbable Research. Through the course of the long fall night, 10 Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded to individuals whose achievements in science "cannot and should not be reproduced." While not a complete farce -- actual Nobel laureates attend the ceremony each year, albeit wearing Groucho glasses -- the event is meant to highlight the quirkier side of science.

Since the event's inception nine years ago, things have gotten a bit out of hand.

A parade of delegates from the audience -- including the Non-Extremists for Moderate Change, a group from Finland, and Lawyers For and Against Biodiversity -- kicks off the most recent affair. Nearly nude volunteers, painted from head to toe in gold and equipped with flashlights, act as living spotlights for scheduled speakers and their inevitable hecklers. Audience members dressed in lab coats, cow suits, fly heads, and scratchy wool pullovers make paper airplanes and soar them at distinguished guests. In the midst of it all, 10 new Ig recipients are recognized for their "brilliance," as expressed in painstaking research reports like "Acute Management of the Zipper-Entrapped Penis" and "Salmonella Excretion in Joy-Riding Pigs."

By popular request, W.H. Freeman and Company recently reprinted The Best of Annals of Improbable Research, a delightful look at the history of AIR, Ig, and scientific silliness. Chock-full of memorable papers ("The Aerodynamics of Potato Chips," "The Ability of Woodchucks to Chuck Cellulose Fibers," "The Medical Effects of Kissing Boo-Boos," "Chaos: Evidence for the Butterfly Effect"), compelling interviews (Nobel laureates discussing the relative merits of beer, potato chips, and reading in the bathroom), and musings on God, The Best of AIR is a jolly read.

But you can't throw paper airplanes at it.
Imagine the joy of Bay Area-bound science dabblers, then, when editor Marc Abrahams announced a West Coast book tour that included stopovers at Stanford University, NASA Ames Research Center, UC Berkeley, the Exploratorium, and West Coast Live.

"I've always liked science, but AIR's a riot," says 12-year-old Shea Warren, an eighth-grade student who plans to major in astrophysics. "It makes my friends laugh even though they only read the headlines and gives me interesting ideas for the science fair. My teacher started using [AIR] in class sometimes."

"This may be the first group in the history of science to publicly mock themselves in front of the world," says 52-year-old Gene Neskitt, who's been a fan of AIR (and its predecessor, the Journal of Irreproducible Results) since his early teens. "OK, maybe not the first, but certainly the most accomplished."

Inside the Exploratorium's McBean Theater, program manager Melissa Alexander tries to settle a yammering crowd. There is a healthy combination of young and old present, but everyone has that bagged-lunch, chem-lab air. Even the adults seem as if they are on a field trip. People fidget. Voices are inordinately loud. Someone gets hit in the head with a jacket.

"We've been called the Mad Magazine of science," begins Abrahams. "There's some truth to that. A third of what we publish is genuine; a third of it is concocted. A third of our readership can't tell the difference." The crowd laughs -- very loudly. Everyone here is determined to be irreverent.

Abrahams has prepared a slide show with provocative pictures from past Ig Nobel events, examples of award-winning papers, bizarre patents, the oddball cat, and some funny-looking cells. His banter is easy and relaxed. He's used to crowds -- the crowd isn't.

The paper titled "Transmission of Gonorrhoea Through an Inflatable Doll" is almost too much for those in attendance. There is some strenuous nose snorting. Someone in the back row can't stop repeating the key words and slapping his knee. A picture of underarm deodorant testers causes more guffaws and a long round of "eeeews." As does the sentence "Electroejaculation is difficult to perform on the rhinoceros."

At the beginning of the lecture, Abrahams said, "You don't have to be afraid of science." Frank Wu, a local man who wrote "The Correlation Between Tornadoes and Trailer Homes" while at the University of Wisconsin, supplies some convincing data in regard to twisters. But that topic just can't compete with "Rectal Impaction After Enema With Concrete Mix." A gray-haired man with a beard chortles and punches my arm. I am very afraid.

Finally, Abrahams mentions that paper airplanes are often thrown at speakers during the Ig Prizes. The future great minds of our time scramble for paper and comply.

They are sated, for now.

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By Silke Tudor

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Silke Tudor


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