Stray Boulder awards combine fun with a serious warning

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Last week Sisyphus, the Czech Club of Skeptics, awarded the Czech Republic's "greatest" pseudo-scientists for 2003. The annual award has existed for six years with the aim of poking fun and making the public aware of some of the nonsensical theories that are out there, presented by fortunetellers, astrologers, and faith-healers.

The crowded auditorium at the Faculty of Science welcomes a desperate Sisyphus, the mythological character who gave the Club of Czech Skeptics its name. After a brief opening speech, awards are handed out in two categories, to individuals and groups. The character of Sisyphus, who turned out to be none other than renowned physicist Jiri Grygar, told me, that the Stray Boulder awards - though fun - had a serious message.

"It is fun for us but it is actually quite a serious problem for the general public. In this postmodern world, apparently nobody is interested in true information, but only in the so called infotainment and we are strongly against this."

Back to the ceremony itself, Vlastimil Zert scored third in the "individuals" category, but ended-up stealing the show. Mr Zert was awarded for giving weight to a wacky German "theory of bar codes" that claims that the codes, which appear on all store-bought products, "collect energy" from electric appliances - and even - from each other! According to the theory, the bar-codes spread destructive radiation, which can be harmful to human organs. This means that for example a bar code on a bottle of milk can cause serious damage to your heart...

Last year, the Stray Boulder went to Czech Radio for reports on numerology and other questionable theories. Surprisingly, this year's winner turned out to be Mlada Fronta Dnes, one of the country's leading newspapers, for publishing uncritical articles on alternative medicine. Jiri Grygar says this is a current trend.

"The trend is horrible. It is surprising to find, that at the end of the 19th century the public media were differentiated. There was serious press and the tabloids. In the tabloids there was a lot about pseudo-science, but in the serious press, there was nothing like this. Now, as you see, Czech Radio or Mlada Fronta Dnes are violating this border. It is very difficult to make any recommendations."

For the first time ever, none of the winners appeared in person. But the evening was not over yet.

The Club of Skeptics announced six new grants, for example, for research on inter-galactic law, which would regulate relations between humans and extraterrestrial beings. As Mr Grygar told me, the funds are actually available but so far there were no applicants.

The evening ended with a theatre performance during which customers of the Incarna Travel Agency allegedly were reincarnated as pharaohs, the ancient rulers of Egypt.