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The 2002 Ig Nobel Prize in Chemistry

This is a pseudo-blog post. The original is an ancient web page still present at

The Ig Nobel prizes are awarded every year by the journal The Annals of Improbable Research for scientific work that "cannot or should not be reproduced". It is a very silly prize, given at a very silly ceremony by a very silly journal. It is, in fact, the highest scientific honor of the silly category in the world. And it is without doubt the highest honor for which the Periodic Table Table is eligible.

The Annals of Improbable Research's website lists all the winners, past and present. There was a live webcast of the awards ceremony on October 3, 2002, and there will be an archive version of the video at some point (but not yet). On the Friday after Thanksgiving there will be an audio broadcast of the ceremony on NPR's Science Friday with Ira Flatow: You can listen to an audio archive of the ceremony.

On my own site I have a 23MB QuickTime of my acceptance speech, including the marvelous performance of Tom Lehrer's Elements song, or this shorter version which is only 13MB but doesn't include the song.

I arrived in Boston on Wednesday with Ed Pegg, the original popularizer of the Periodic Table Table website. We spent a delightful afternoon at the Peabody Museum visiting their delightful collection of minerals, and their truly amazing glass flowers. They have helpfully sorted their mineral collection by chemical makeup, all the native elements first, then all the sulfides, and so on. This allowed me to efficiently photograph all their native elements in one place: Most convenient. These pictures will form the foundation for a whole new category of samples on my website: External specimens, defined as things too interesting not to write up, but not physically present in the table. Such samples will be clearly identified and not counted towards the total number of samples in the table, so you can remain confident that all the regular samples you see documented on this website are physically present in or near the Periodic Table Table.

In the evening we made our way to a rehearsal for the ceremony, at the stunning Sanders Theater in Memorial Hall on the Harvard campus. The building is built like a church, complete with spectacular stained glass. It's not a church, but rather a study hall and theater.

The interior of the theater is lovely. The woodwork is of the finest calibre. The seating is very close in to the stage, ideal for an audience participation show like the Ig Nobels. 

We didn't really have anything to do at the rehearsal, other than watch the very serious looking team of camera operators, reporters, producers, and technicians from Japan's NHK television network. (They loosened up by Saturday.)

They did need some stand-ins for the rehearsal, so Ed got to receive dozens of awards, and also deliver quite a few 24/7 lectures.

After the rehearsal we went home with our delightful host family, Jane and Miles, who are both sound technicians at WGBH, the fine public broadcasting station based in Boston. We committed a faux pas by saying we were hoping to meet Click & Clack the Tappit Brothers at the station. Turns out they work at the other public broadcasting station in Boston. Oops. 

At least we got to see the sign for their offices, Dewey, Cheetham, and Howe, over Harvard Square.

The next day we spent a delightful afternoon at the Boston Science Museum, where I photographed some more elements, including nitrogen. This is a nice museum, but nothing in it is as amazing as the glass flowers at the Peabody. You must see the glass flowers.

Then it was time to get to the theater for the ceremony. I don't have any pictures of the ceremony, but you can watch the long or short versions of my acceptance speech.

Basically this is a cross between a showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show (before everyone got tired of it) and a proper awards ceremony. The jokes are mostly the same as last time, but they have to be otherwise people wouldn't know what to shout when.

I did take pictures at the post-ceremony reception, where the Japanese team was handing out strange pocket-karaoke machines. It was a mad crush of Ig Nobel winners, real Nobel winners, Japanese reporters, American reporters, lights, food, cameras, Sweetie Poos, silver painted people and a dog.

Marc Abrahams remained remarkably composed throughout it all. The whole experience was great fun, and there were surprisingly few flaming disasters.

The following Saturday I, along with all the other winners, delivered our "informal lectures" at one of the ugliest, most inconvenient and uncomfortable buildings I have ever had the privilege of speaking in. (It was designed by I. M. Pei.) The live broadcast on the MIT student radio station was distinguished, I later learned, by the use of the "F" word by the sound technician when his sound feed wasn't working, or so he thought.

But thanks to Miles, who supplied a wide assortment of adapter plugs, the sodium explosion videos in my talk sounded great, because they were plugged directly into the sound system.

A great time was had by all, and the speeches were all really quite interesting.

I learned from the doctor at HMO-NO that throwing sodium into the Charles River really is an MIT tradition, as I speculated it must be during my talk. This only serves to reinforce my point that while many have thrown sodium, few have documented or video taped it, and fewer still have been willing to submit their work to the judgement of the public in the form of a web publication with video and an admission of guilt. I seem to be the first, in fact. Odd really.

Perhaps my example will prompt someone to video tape the Harvard tradition next time. (Should such a person wish to have the video posted, with attribution or anonymously, I would be quite happy to provide the service.)

Theodore GrayComment