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Three cheers, and a few jeers, for weird science

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You know you've done something special when you're invited to travel across the globe to accept a prize of plastic chattering teeth from a Nobel laureate. You may feel a strange sense of pride as you give your acceptance speech – despite the paper airplanes careening toward you and the pig-tailed 9-year-old berating you for being boring.

Being an Ig Nobel Prize-winner is all this and more. The annual ceremony, held this year on Oct. 3 at Harvard University, toasts science "that cannot and should not be reproduced." Featuring 10 winners from seven countries – who paid their own way – the show was an international blockbuster of science humor. And there's a constructive side to all the shenanigans: making science more appealing to students.

"There's a tradition that science has to be important and serious, which seems to be a pretty good way to scare people," says emcee Mark Abrahams.

And frightened students are not good learners. In the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, a study sponsored by the US Department of Education, 82 percent of high school seniors scored below the minimum acceptable level for science proficiency.

For students who think science is as entertaining as a silent film, the Igs offer a different view. William Lipscomb, Nobel laureate and professor emeritus at Harvard, says he comes every year because the Ig Nobels prove that anyone can "have a lot of fun with science." Students from the Commonwealth School in Boston agreed. "We loved it," they chorused after the show.

This kind of student response is making teachers turn for help to the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR). It promotes the Ig Nobel Prizes and organizes a similar show at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It also publishes the AIR magazine, and Mr. Abrahams, the editor, insists everything featured in it is legitimate research.


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