2010 Ig Nobel Awards: Proof that Real Science Can Be Really Fun
Before an audience of several trillion beings (“ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, literati, glitterati, pseudo-intellectuals, quasi-pseudo-intellectuals, and gram-negative bacillococci”), the 20th First Annual Ig Nobel Awards Ceremony took place on Thursday night at Harvard University’s venerable Sanders Theater. After a musical prelude by roving accordionists and harpist extraordinaire Deborah Hansen-Conant, the ceremony commenced with this caveat from Dr. Thomas Michel of Harvard Medical School and senior physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital: “There’s no need for worry. But we need to make you aware of a situation. Someone sitting in this audience … is covered with bacteria. If you are sitting next to that person, there’s no cause for alarm. Because, you see, EVERY person in this audience … is covered with bacteria!”
Flanked by hand sanitizers and “human spotlights,” in front of a prestigious gathering of (real) Nobel Laureates, present and past Ig Nobel winners, and “Ignitaries” including graphic novelist Neil Gaiman, the evening’s theme of “bacteria” played out. Conjoined twins Evelyn Evelyn (Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley) serenaded the audience with a brand new song (composed that very day!) about bacteria. “The Bacterial Opera,” a mini-opera in four acts, related the adventures and travails of four microorganisms living on a woman’s tooth as they sought to expand their world only to meet with a tragic and callous end. In the 24/7 lectures, three notable thinkers were required to explain their topics – slime mold, oral bacteria, and writer identification – first in 24 seconds and then in 7 words. Three additional notable thinkers were charged with responding to the Big Question: “How many bacteria… can dance on the head of a pin?” Dashing William Lipscomb, whose romantic resume includes the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1976, membership in the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels, and a mineral – lipscombite – named for him — was introduced as the prize in the Win-a-Date-with-a-Nobel-Laureate contest.
One of the early high points was a demonstration by previous Ig Nobel winner, Dr. Elena Bodnar, of her invention of a bra that can be converted into a gas mask. Along with Neil Gaiman, the Laureates in attendance – Roy Glauber, Sheldon Glashow, Frank Wilczek, James Muller, and Bill Lipscomb – gamely struggled to effect the transformation, thus proving that bra-unhooking and brains don’t necessarily go together.
Eagerly anticipated by the boisterous, paper-airplane-flying crowd were the awards themselves, ten published journal articles or other genuine endeavors that, as Annals of Improbable Research publisher, Ig creator, chief AIRhead, and Master of Ceremonies Marc Abrahams, notes, “first make people laugh, and then make them think.” As each winner was announced and escorted through curtains held by the two “human curtain rods,” Evelyn Evelyn delivered the commemorative plaque to a designated Nobel Laureate who congratulated the winner(s) with the keepsake and an embarrassingly long handshake. The winner(s) then offered a statement that, if exceeding the time limitation or the attention span of a little girl, was interrupted by eight-year-old “Miss Sweetie-Poo” who intoned, “Please stop, I’m bored. Please stop, I’m bored,” until the hapless winner succumbed (see photo of Miss S-P at work). With no further ado, here are the 2010 Ig Nobel Prize winners.
The Medicine Prize was given to psychologists Simon Rietveld and Ilja van Beest of the University of Amsterdam who discovered that asthma can be alleviated by riding on a roller coaster.
Lianne Parkin and associates at the University of Otago in New Zealand won the Physics Prize for demonstrating that people who wear their socks outside their shoes are less likely to slip on icy sidewalks.
To win the Biology Prize, Gareth Jones of Bristol University and his team from China showed that, at least in the short-nosed fruit bat, “females who performed oral sex on their mates copulated for longer. ‘It is the first documented case of fellatio by adult animals other than humans to my knowledge, and opens questions about whether female animals can manipulate males via sexual activity, perhaps in this case to improve their chances of successful fertilization,’ Jones told the Guardian. Writing about the research for the Huffington Post last year, the primatologist Frans de Waal said: ‘The fellatio story on bats is a bright spot in an otherwise miserable record that denies animals the pleasure principle, homosexuality, and other forms of non-reproductive sex.’” Jones invited the Laureates to join him in a demonstration with fruit bat puppets, thus exciting the audience as well as the Laureates who seemed oddly reluctant to return the toys.
After hitting his thumb with a hammer and thus enjoying one of those moments of scientific serendipity, Peace Prize winner Richard Stephens et al of Keele University confirmed that swearing relieves pain.
The Engineering Prize was awarded to Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse and collaborators at the Institute of Zoology in London for designing a method of using small, remote-controlled helicopters to collect fluids ejected from whales’ blowholes. In her acceptance speech, Acevedo-Whitehouse modestly admitted that “whale snot” had been a lifelong obsession.
Mark Fricker and Dan Bebber at Oxford University worked with Japanese scientists to show that slime mold could be used to model an effective railway network, thus winning the Transportation Prize.
The Management Prize was given to Alessandro Pluchino and collaborators at the University of Catania for demonstrating mathematically that companies work more efficiently if staff are promoted at random.
The Public Health Prize was awarded to Manuel Barbeito at the Industrial Health and Safety Office in Maryland for studies showing that because microbes cling to beards, bearded scientists are potential laboratory hazards.
A long-held belief that oil and water do not mix was overthrown by this year’s winner of the Chemistry Prize: Eric Adams of MIT and others, including researchers at BP.
The Economics Prize was awarded jointly to the executives and directors of Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, AIG and Magnetar for “creating and promoting new ways to invest money – ways that maximize financial gain and minimize financial risk for the world economy, or for a portion thereof.”
Prior to the final act of the mini-opera, all of the winners once more passed through the curtains to receive a triumphal handshake from Nobel Laureate William Lipscomb. After the opera finale, Laureates, winners and other Ignitaries gathered, as Abrahams described, “for a pointless photo opportunity.” Abrahams concluded the ceremony by wishing those who did not win an Ig Nobel in 2010 – and especially those who did – better luck next year.
While the 2010 Ig Nobels receded into history, the mission of the event – to demonstrate that real science can be really entertaining – endures. “The Ig Nobel awards are great,” said Transportation Prize winner Mark Fricker. “They are a wonderful vehicle for putting some science into the public domain in a fun and interesting way.”
photo credit: John F. Bradley