WHEN SCIENCE GOES WACKY: Soggy Cereal, Love Dolls and the Ig Nobel Prizes

So much silly science, so little time. That's why we're lucky that Marc Abrahams has dedicated his life to searching out and skewering the best of the worst of scientific research. For the past seven years, Abrahams has presided over the Ig Nobel Prizes, which are conferred annually at a big, boisterous awards ceremony at Harvard University. These booby prizes honor research that's so ghastly, so foolish or so funny that you couldn't make it up. "I'm not sure that you'd want to," said Abrahams, who has parlayed a Harvard undergraduate degree in applied mathematics into a position as the nation's guru of academic grunge. Over the years, Ig Nobels have been awarded to a team of psychologists who claim to have taught pigeons to distinguish between the paintings of Picasso and Monet. Other Igs have gone to scientists who studied foot odor, to researchers who investigated why breakfast cereal gets soggy, and to an zoologist who wrote a book on how to identify the splattered bugs on car windshields. Also honored was the British physicist who proved that buttered toast does, indeed, usually fall to the floor butter-side down and the authors of the study "Salmonella Excretion in Joy-Riding Pigs." Winners are selected by Abrahams, who edits the smart and satiric journal the Annals of Improbable Research. He's assisted by the scientists and science writers who sit on the journal's board, as well as by "three strangers we drag in off the street, to provide a reality check." Nominations come in by mail, fax and phone from around the world; some winners have even nominated themselves. Since the first award in 1991, the Ig Nobels have acquired cult status among the super-smart in this country and abroad. The awards ceremony invariably is attended by real Nobel Prize laureates, who typically wear wacky hats or Groucho glasses and fake mustaches and perform in songs and skits. (William Lipscomb, Chemistry 76, was the prize in this year's Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobel-Laureate Contest.) This year's Ig Nobels ceremony, which was held a few weeks ago, will be broadcast Nov. 28 on National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation: Science Friday." And now Abrahams has a book just out, "The Best of the Annals of Improbable Research," which features Ig Nobel winners and lowlights of past awards ceremonies. Abrahams said his own greatest-hits list includes the two Norwegian physicians who published "Transmission of Gonorrhea Through an Inflatable Doll" in the journal Genitourinary Medicine. The doctors recounted how they treated a sea captain who had sneaked into a sailor's quarters and borrowed "a piece of {tainted} equipment," Abrahams said. "It was the first such case ever reported in the literature."

One of the doll docs was so thrilled with his Ig Nobel that he paid his own way from Oslo to attend the awards ceremony. He offered this piece of cautionary advice: "When you date an inflatable doll, you're dating everyone who's ever dated that inflatable doll." So true.

Veterinarian Robert Lopez of New York is another Ig Nobel star. He won the 1994 entomology prize for collecting ear mites from cats and then inserting them into his own ears. He recounted his experiences in the Journal of the American Veterinary Society.

Since then, Lopez has become a regular at the Ig Nobel ceremonies. Last year, he even brought cookies he made from locusts. Speaking of food, Abrahams recalls a tense moment at the 1995 awards ceremony. John Martinez, an Atlanta food distributor, had just received the nutrition prize for importing Luwak Coffee. At $200 to $300 a pound, it may be the most expensive cuppa joe in the world. It's made from coffee beans eaten and then excreted by the luwak, (a k a palm civet) a marsupial native to Indonesia. (For the record, the critter supposedly eats only the ripest and best coffee berries, and the beans pass through reasonably intact.) "We had five Nobel laureates on the stage and we brought out five steaming cups of Luwak Coffee," Abrahams recalled. "Then there was this wonderful, long moment -- each one holding a cup, each looking at the other. You knew what was going through their minds. If one takes a drink, we've all got to. Well, one took a sip, and then they all did. Since I had set it up, I felt I had to as well." Some Igs have honored the flotsam and jetsam of popular culture. Ron Popeil, late-night TV pitch man and inventor of the Veg-O-Matic, Pocket Fisherman and Mr. Microphone, won the 1993 Ig Nobel prize for consumer engineering. Don Featherstone took home the art prize last year for creating the pink plastic lawn flamingo. The Igs also have honored dubious feats by smart people who should have known better. The 1996 chemistry prize went to electrical engineer George Goble of Purdue University. He ignited a backyard barbecue in three seconds using charcoal and three gallons of liquid oxygen. (Kids -- particularly my kids -- don't try this at home.) Sometimes Abrahams skewers pseudo-science, such as the 1994 mathematics award given to the Southern Baptist Church of Alabama, which scoured local crime and divorce statistics to provide a "county-by-county estimate of how many Alabama citizens will go to Hell if they don't repent." While not exactly coveted, the Ig Nobels are tolerated in good humor by most winners and other scientists. But there are exceptions. Sir Robert May, the British government's chief scientific adviser, complained that the prizes ridiculed serious science and scientists. (Sir Bob was particularly peeved over the 1995 physics award given to the British researchers who studied soggy cereal.)

Get a life, responded the editors of the British scientific journal Chemistry and Industry, who rose to Abrahams's defense in an editorial: "May's misfire only makes him (and British science) look thin-skinned and humourless . . . . Long may British scientists take their rightful places in the Ig Nobel honour roll." You can reach The Unconventional Wiz at: morinr@clark.net