Hyuk-ho Kwon, the inventor of scratch-and-sniff clothing, stood at the podium as four Nobel Prize laureates awkwardly took their places at center stage, each dressed in a dark three-piece suit Kwon custom-made for them at his manufacturing plant in Seoul.
"The stronger you rub it, the stronger it smells," Kwon instructed. The sellout crowd of 1,200 that packed Harvard's historic Sanders Theater roared its encouragement.
Tentatively, Nobel laureates William Lipscomb (Chemistry '76), Dudley Herschbach (Chemistry '86), Sheldon Glashow (Physics '79), and Robert Wilson (Physics '78) scratched the shiny fabric.
They sniffed. They smiled. They scratched harder. Soon, they were circling one another, scratching and sniffing, as the crowd hooted and showered paper airplanes on the stage.
"This is my greatest honor," Kwon said. More cheers. More paper airplanes.
And so it went Thursday night at the Ninth 1st Annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, which honors scientific accomplishments "that cannot or should not be reproduced," said emcee Marc Abrahams, editor of the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research, (AIR) which sponsored the event with the Harvard Computer Society and the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association.
This year, bodily excretions, funny food, ghastly clothing and flame-throwers figured prominently in the 10 awards, given to winners representing nine countries and five continents.
Arvid Vatle came from Stord, Norway, to accept the Ig in Medicine. He was honored for "carefully collecting, classifying and contemplating which kinds of containers his patients chose when submitting urine samples." The list included beer and soft drink cans, a Bell's Old Scotch Whisky bottle, an empty deodorant container and a jar that once held Cara Fiesta taco sauce.
The Journal of the Norwegian Medical Association published Vatle's study in its March 20 issue, and on Monday he presents it to Harvard Medical School. "I did the study for fun, merely for fun, and as an emotional release," Vatle said before the show. "I am a country practitioner, and I was constantly amused by the containers the people used to bring in their specimens when I told them they were needed for a test."
Too often, he added, the test report he got back bore tragic news, and "I suppose I also did it to whistle, so that I may not weep."
Takeshi Makino, president of the Safety Detective Agency in Osaka, Japan, received the Chemistry award "for his involvement with S-Check, an infidelity detection spray wives can apply to their husbands' underwear." It turns a tattletale blue when it comes in contact with dried--well, you know.
Some in the audience booed when Makino rose to accept the award.
There is a way to beat the test, said the stocky private eye: "Don't wear underpants, ever."
The Managed Health Care Ig was awarded posthumously to George and Charlotte Blonsky of New York City and San Jose, Calif., for patenting a device to aid women giving birth: a circular table that rotates at high speed. Blonsky reportedly got the idea by watching elephants at the Bronx Zoo spinning around when they gave birth.
"I think we're proud to accept this award," said Don Sturtevant, whose wife, Gale, is the Blonskys' niece.
The Sturtevants flew in from California at their own expense to attend the Igs. Not everyone has been so accepting. In 1995, a team of British researchers won for their study of why cereal gets soggy. Britain's chief science adviser, Robert May, was not amused. In the prestigious journal Nature, May railed against the Igs for ridiculing "genuine" scientific projects like the soggy cereal study. Track down astrologers, spiritualists and other impostors, he thundered, and leave "serious scientists to get on with their work."
May's rant backfired, spectacularly so. Scientists on both sides of the Atlantic rushed to defend the Igs and skewer May as a stiff old twit.
Britain's scientists might be more careful what they wish for. This year, British researchers claimed three of the 10 Ig Nobels. The Ig in Physics was awarded jointly to Jean-Marc Vanden-Broeck of Belgium and the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, and Len Fisher of Bath, England, and Sydney, Australia. Vanden-Broeck calculated how to make a teapot spout that does not drip. Fisher calculated the optimal time needed to dunk a cookie to minimize the number of soggy bits at the bottom of the cup.
The Literature prize went to the British Standards Institution for its six-page specification (BS-6008) of the proper way to make a cup of tea. "Two hundred years and finally we have a British winner at a Boston tea party," Fisher said.
Steve Penfold of York University in Toronto accepted the Ig Nobel in Sociology for his PhD thesis on the sociology of Canadian doughnut shops. His meandering acceptance speech was abruptly halted when a little blond-haired girl appeared at his side.
"Please stop talking. I'm bored! Please stop talking, I'm bored!" shouted 8-year-old Natasha Rosenberg, doing a star turn as "Miss Sweetie Poo," a new character created by Abrahams for this year's ceremony to keep speakers from droning on.
The Science Education prize was jointly awarded to the Kansas Board of Education and the Colorado State Board of Education "for mandating that children should not believe in Darwin's theory of evolution any more than they believe in Newton's theory of gravitation, Faraday's and Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism, or Pasteur's theory that germs cause disease."
Other winners included:
* Biology: Paul Bosland of the Chile Pepper Institute, at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, N.M., for breeding a spiceless jalapeno chili pepper.
* Peace: Charl Fourie and Michelle Wong of Johannesburg, South Africa, inventing an automobile alarm consisting of a detection circuit and a flamethrower.
Not all the famous scientists were onstage. At a control board on the floor of the theater, Robert T. Morris was supervising the feed over the Internet, where techies around the world were watching the show live. (The entire Ig Nobel Prize ceremony will be broadcast on NPR the Friday after Thanksgiving.)
Morris teaches computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is an Internet millionaire and serves the AIR editorial board. He's also a convicted felon who was sentenced to community service and three years' probation by a federal judge after a computer "worm" program he wrote clogged operating systems around the world and brought much of the Internet to its knees in 1989. The New York Times called it "the largest assault ever on America's computers." (He has since earned a doctorate in computer science from Harvard, and an estimated $9 million from the sale of an Internet start-up company he co-founded.)
After the 2 1/2-hour show, the four Nobel laureates mixed freely onstage with the Ig Nobel winners and the audience, signing autographs, posing for pictures and talking about their smelly new suits.
"This is a really good suit," said Dudley Herschbach, a Harvard chemistry professor. "Look, it's even got a vest. I'm wearing this to class tomorrow."
But what does it smell like?
"Peppermint?" the Nobel laureate asked.
No, spearmint, other sniff testers suggested.
Peppermint it is, said Kwon.
The suits sell for $400 in Korea. There are plans to market the scratch-and-sniff fabric, but not the suits, in the United States.
"We also sell scented underwear as well," Kwon said.
That may merit a second Ig, Abrahams said.