Ig Nobels Celebrate Weird Science

Albert Einstein gets all the attention, but the great mind that would-be inventors ultimately compare themselves to is Otto Rohwedder — at least if they think they've invented the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Up until 1928, the idea of selling pre-sliced bread was preposterous. After all, the bread would quickly grow stale. Then Rohwedder came along.

After 13 years of tinkering, the inventor from Iowa introduced a 10-foot-long contraption that sliced and stuffed loaves of bread into wax paper wrapping. The world changed.

By 1933, 80 percent of the bread sold in the United States was pre-sliced, leaving hungry Americans standing before their toasters wondering, "What was the greatest thing before sliced bread?"

Last week, Interstate Bakeries, the makers of Wonder Bread, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Call it Rohwedder's revenge. He sold the patent for his bread-slicing machine shortly before Wonder Bread became a uniquely American sensation.

I'm reminded of Rohwedder as Harvard University prepares to announce the 2004 Ig Nobel Award winners — handed out since 1991 for research that "cannot or should not be reproduced."

Last year's winners included the scientists who performed "An Analysis of the Forces Required to Drag Sheep over Various Surfaces" and the authors of the report "Politicians' Uniquely Simple Personalities."

The ceremony, which will be held this Thursday, has become an Ivy League tradition, with Nobel Prize winners on hand to salute the winners. And even though the Ig Nobel is not exactly a prestigious award, winners travel from all over the world to collect their trophies.

The proceedings will be broadcast live over the Internet by the Annals of Improbable Research, a science humor journal, at www.improbable.com.

"We're not insulted," said Jonathan Wyatt, a Scottish researcher at the University of Glasgow who was honored with two other colleagues a few years ago for a report titled "The Collapse of Toilets in Glasgow."

"Between us, we've published more than 70 research papers," he said. "This is the only one that's given us any publicity at all."

If nothing else, the Ig Nobels demonstrates a form of courage, and you need courage if you intend to be an innovator.

This week, The Wolf Files salutes inventors who have changed American culture with gizmos that might be even greater than sliced bread — especially if you're on a low-carb diet.

Some of the following inventors are even former Ig Nobel winners, and you can be sure, they're the ones laughing now.

1. The Pink Flamingo (1957): Thanks to Donald Featherstone, a lawn ornament industry legend, you'll find plastic pink flamingos outside homes in virtually every American community. Inspired by a picture in National Geographic, he sculpted his first flamingo mold, and, to date, more than 20 million have been sold.

Featherstone, now 68, was fresh out of art school when he was commissioned by Union Products, a Massachusetts company, to sculpt a figurine that would jazz up the American lawn. He went on to create more than 650 lawn ornament designs. Plastic penguins and frosty blue snowmen never caught on, but the flamingos paid the bills. The company still sells more than 250,000 synthetic tropical birds each year.

Lawn ornaments might not be your idea of high art. But up until Featherstone retired a few years ago, after winning his Ig Nobel in 1996, each pink flamingo bore his signature. Remember, it's not trash. It's a Featherstone!

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