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Ig Nobel Prizes show silly side of science

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 5, 2012 - What does Beano, the infamous anti-flatulence treatment, have in common with Dasani, the bottled water with the exotic-sounding name?

Both have figured into the Ig Nobel Prizes, those pseudo-silly-scientific awards that, according to their website, are designed to honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.

And some winners have also been recipients of their better-known and considerably more serious cousin, the Nobel Prizes for science.

A big fan of the Ig Nobels, Harvard emeritus professor Dudley Herschbach – one of the three winners of the 1986 Nobel Prize in chemistry for their “contributions concerning the dynamics of chemical elementary processes" – talked about them at Washington University’s Graham Chapel Wednesday in an address titled “Silly Serious Science.”

Anyone who did not know what the lecture was all about got a pretty good indication from the video on a giant screen as they entered. There, they saw a perfect parody of serious award ceremonies: people on stage throwing paper airplanes, members of the crowd taking part in enthusiastic audience participation, promos for a “studmuffins of science” calendar and the like.

And sweeping up on the video stage was the Ig Nobel “Keeper of the Broom,” Harvard professor Roy Glauber, who in addition to his custodial skills can also boast of winning the 2005 Nobel Prize in physics.

Using one of the hallmarks of any serious presentation -- a Power Point display --  Herschbach regaled the crowd with highlights of the Ig Nobels, which he said have grown to attract more than 1,000 nominations every year first established in 1991.

In that year Jacques Benveniste won the first award for chemistry by demonstrating that water is intelligent and is “able to remember events long after all trace of those events has vanished.”

Not to be outdone, Alan Kligerman, the inventor of Beano, was recognized with the award for medicine as being the “deviser of digestive deliverance, vanquisher of vapor, and inventor of Beano, for his pioneering work with anti-gas liquids that prevent bloat, gassiness, discomfort and embarassment.”

And the Ig Nobels came up with a special award that year for J. Danforth Quayle, “consumer of time and occupier of space, for demonstrating, better than anyone else, the need for science education.”

In the years since that auspicious beginning, Herschbach said, the Ig Nobels have honored such landmark scientific achievements as the invention by a South Korean of a self-perfuming business suit, which smells better the hotter and more humid the weather gets, and an experiment that shows how beer foam obeys the law of exponential decay.

Where does Dasani come in?

In 2004, the Coca-Cola Co., bottlers of the water, was given the Ig Nobel Prize “for using advanced technology to convert ordinary tap water into Dasani, a transparent form of water.”

At the time, Herschbach explained, it was first revealed that Dasani – which he called the “pause that depresses” – was water from the River Thames, marked up in price from 3 pence to 95 pence for each half liter. Then, he said, analysis found that it introduces bromate at twice the legal limit, while untreated water from the river in London has no detectable bromate at all.

To show that the Ig Nobels carry on a long tradition of mixing science with silliness, Herschbach concluded with a 1780 proposal from Benjamin Franklin, who showed he was far ahead of his time.

“It is universally well known,” Herschbach quoted Franklin as postulating, “that in digesting our food, there is created in the bowels of human creatures a great quantity of wind.

“My prize question: To discover some drug wholesome and not disagreeable, to be mix’d with our common food, that shell render the natural discharges of wind from our bodies not only inoffensive, but agreeable as perfumes.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.