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Celebrants pack Sanders Theatre each October for the annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremonies honoring scientists whose achievements "cannot or should not be reproduced." The event is antidotal to the solemnity of announcements emanating from Stockholm; last year's fictive winners at the Seventh First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremonies included a researcher from the University of Florida who had done pioneering work on identifying insect splats on automobile windshields.
The instigator and master of ceremonies of the Ig Nobels is Marc Abrahams '78, Gp '81, of Cambridge, editor of the magazine Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), who has recently confronted a bit of real unpleasantness. In August 1997, Abrahams was sued in an Illinois federal court for $4.2 million by George Scheer, publisher of the rival, older Journal of Irreproducible Results (JIR). Scheer, representing himself, charged Abrahams with trademark infringement (claiming that the name of AIR is deceptively similar to the name of JIR), unfair business practices, fraud, conspiracy, and racketeering. (That last one is Abrahams's favorite charge. It is an honor, he says, "to have a man from Chicago call you a racketeer.")
Scheer also sought to win control of the phrase "Ig Nobel Prize." The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejected his claim, but Abrahams reports that for various reasons the office is considering the matter afresh.
Scheer filed further charges against Abrahams and AIR in December and January, adding perjury to the list of charges and raising the total of damages sought, according to Abrahams, to $8.1 million. Scheer said this spring that he hadn't the foggiest idea what the total was; he hadn't added it up.
Abrahams was the editor of JIR from 1991 to 1994, when he left, with the entire editorial staff--himself (the only paid staffer) and four or five volunteers--and most of the editorial board, to found AIR, which now has about 2,000 subscribers and gross annual revenue of $50,000. JIR was founded in 1955. Scheer was its publisher from 1964 to 1989, sold it to another publisher ("against whom he then took legal action," says Abrahams), and reacquired the magazine after Abrahams resigned.
Abrahams is represented by Robert Dushman '70 and Jeffrey Hermes, J.D. '97, of Brown, Rudnick, Freed & Gesmer of Boston, who filed a motion to have the case dismissed. A judge did dismiss it in May, ruling that an Illinois court had no jurisdiction in the matter. In July Scheer appealed the ruling. He could also file his suit in Massachusetts, but that would be far more expensive for him than anything he has done to date because he would have to hire a local lawyer or journey to the commonwealth repeatedly himself.
Dushman and Hermes are donating their services, which is not to say that Abrahams has had no legal expenses. Because Scheer's suit was filed in Chicago, logistical efficiency required Abrahams to engage an Illinois law firm, for instance.
"There will likely be thousands of dollars of legal costs," Abrahams predicted earlier, "possibly enough to destroy Earth's vital supply of AIR." Accordingly, he launched a "Strategic AIR Defense Fund"; contributions may be sent in care of Dushman. Honorary co-chairs of the fund are actual Nobel Laureates Dudley Herschbach, Ph.D. '58, JF '59, Baird professor of science; William Lipscomb, Lawrence professor of chemistry emeritus; and Richard J. Roberts, of New England BioLabs, each of whom has helped officiate at Ig Nobel ceremonies.
Not at issue in the courts so far is a book edited by Abrahams, The Best of Annals of Improbable Research, published last year by W.H. Freeman ($14.95, paper). In it, Abrahams elucidates such matters as how peanut butter affects the rotation of the earth.
In mid summer Abrahams appeared calm. He was at work on an opera to be performed by the Nobel laureates who will participate in the Ig Nobel ceremonies on October 8 (see "http://www. improbable.com" for details). The theme of the proceedings this year is duct tape.
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