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Ig Nobel Ceremony Hails Science’s Laughable Achievements of the Year

By Ricarose Roque

The 12th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony launched its mayhem amidst a bombardment of paper airplanes last Thursday, Oct. 3 in Harvard University’s historic Sanders Theatre in honor of achievements that “can not and should not be reproduced.”

A farcical spin off the Switzerland Nobel Prize Ceremony, the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, set a few days before Nobel Prize winners are announced, presented its 10 awards in the categories of biology, physics, interdisciplinary research, chemistry, mathematics, literature, peace, hygiene, economics, and medicine. The winners, representing five different countries, flew in at their own expense. Each winner received a mock trophy with chattering teeth on a metal stand, a certificate, and of course the classic handshake.

Nobel Prize Laureates Dudley Herschbach (Chemistry ’86), William Lipscomb (Chemistry ’76), and Richard Roberts (Physiology or Medicine ’93) personally presented the awards to the winners.

The criterion for Ig Nobel winners is “quite simple” said Marc Abrahams, creator, producer, and director of the ceremony as well as editor of the magazine Annals of Improbable Research. “What these people did should first make you laugh, then make you think. It took 12 years to put our criteria into these few words.”

During the ceremony, the winners were each given a minute for their acceptance speech. If they exceeded their time limit an “eternally nine-year old girl would come up to them say ‘Please stop. I’m bored.’” Two related free public lectures were held later, one at Harvard on Oct. 4 and another at MIT on Oct. 5, where the winners were given a chance to explain “what they did and why they did it.”

Awards honor unusual research projects

The achievements recognized such bizarre research and findings as the sexual attraction of ostriches to humans, the exponential decay of beer froth as well as a comprehensive survey of belly button lint.

“Science is a very serious business,” said Chief Science Advisor to the British government David King. “It’s nice to have a good laugh.”

Although the winners and their research and inventions generate much laughter and disbelief, their work is no lie.

The Medicine prize went to Chris McManus Professor of Psychology and Medical Education at the Department of Psychology at the University College, London for his report “Scrotal Asymmetry in Man and in Ancient Sculpture” which was featured in the front page and a section of the magazine Nature.

“I dare everyone in this room to go to their nearest research library and ask the librarian word for word in the loudest voice possible for this article,” Abraham said.

Charles Paxton, in collaboration with Norma Bubier, Phil Bowers, and Charles Deeming received the Biology Prize for their report on the “Courtship Behavior of Ostriches Towards Humans Under Farming Conditions in Britain.”

“We didn’t think it was so funny at the time,” Paxton said, who has now become a fish biologist.

The team performed the experiment during the early ’90s when Britain was having an Ostrich breeding craze. However, the ostriches refused to breed amongst themselves. The team soon found out that the sexual behavior that the ostriches did display was directed towards humans instead.

“At no stage in my entire life have I had so many obvious passes in so short a period of time,” Paxton said. “Though unfortunately for me it was another species.”

The prizes for hygiene and peace went out to two inventions benefiting the dog and cat world. The Hygiene award went to Eduardo Segura, of Lavakan de Aste, in Tarragona, Spain for inventing a washing machine for cats and dogs. The Peace Prize went to Keita Sato, President of Takara a major Japanese-based toy company, Dr. Matsumi Suzuki, President of Japan Acoustic Lab and Dr. Norio, Kogure Executive Director of Kogure Veterinary Hospital for Bowlingual, their dog-to-human translation device in “promoting peace between the species.”

This year’s ceremony did not forget to recognize the executives, corporate directors, and auditors of major yet struggling companies of the United States and other countries such as Enron, Global, Rite Aid, WorldCom, and Waste Management for “adapting the mathematical concept of imaginary numbers for use in the business world.”

Opera highlights ceremony’s theme

The theme of this year’s ceremony was “Jargon.” The ceremony celebrated its theme in several skits and a mini-opera called “The Jargon Opera” that journeys through the jargon-filled writing and speaking processes of the academic world, starring both professional opera singers and the three Nobel laureates.

“If you write scientific papers, don’t do a dumb thing,” said opera singer Margaret Button. “Don’t be too specific or else you might say something.”

The ceremony also included a series of lectures called the 24/7 Seminars where scientists explained their field of study in technical terms for 24 seconds and afterwards in “every-day, easy to understand” language in seven words. The topics included astrophysics, language, technology, biochemistry, neurobiology, and music.

“Biochemistry explains life for chemists, not physicists,” Roberts said in his seven words.

There was also a Win-A-Date-With-a-Nobel-Laureate Contest with the “totally yum” William Lipscomb. The ceremony was preceded with a “semi-scientific mini-concert” by the Dresden Dolls, a Brechtian-punk-physics band.