“Mother, I know you can hear me. Mother, you were wrong! And now that I have your attention, can I stop eating my broccoli, please?” Donald L. Unger raised his hands in mock rebellion. He had defied his mother’s words for three quarters of his life systematically cracking the knuckles on his left hand and leaving his right knuckles free for 60 years, demonstrating (if only anecdotally) that knuckle cracking does not cause arthritis. For this achievement, he won himself the Ig Nobel Award in Medicine, presented last night at the 19th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony yesterday evening.
The event, which was held at the Sanders Theater on Harvard Campus, awarded Unger and nine other scientists in various fields for their scientific creativity. In the words of Marc Abrahams, Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded to scientists for “achievements that first make people laugh, then think.”
Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded in all the same categories as the higher-profile Nobels — physics, chemistry, medicine, economics, peace and literature — as well as four additional categories: public health, biology, mathematics, and veterinary medicine.
Unlike the Nobel Prizes, Ig Nobel festivities allow prizewinners to show the audience their inventions and discoveries. Elena N. Bodnar, recipient of the Ig Nobel Prize for Public Health, demonstrated her brainchild: a brassiere that can be converted into a pair of gas masks. Using Nobel Laureates Wolfgang Ketterle, Paul Krugman, and Frank Wilczek as her volunteers, Bodnar drew two brassieres and converted them into one pair of hot pink gas masks and another pair of more subdued, black gas masks.
To those skeptics who believe alcohol to be a useless substance, Javier Morales, Miguel Apatiga, and Victor M. Castano of Mexico proved that diamond films could be grown from Tequila, for which they received this year’s Ig Nobel Prize for Chemistry. In their acceptance speech, the team explained one exciting aspect of their research: “Do you need a scanning electron microscope to see nanoparticles of diamonds? Of course not! Does Tequila have special properties that lend themselves to the creation of diamonds? Definitely no. Why? When you drink tequila you start seeing all sorts of things anyways.”
While the Ig Nobel Ceremony drew a full house and most of the awardees attended, some winners of the honor were conspicuously absent. Of them, the winners of the Economics, Literature, and Mathematics Prizes were “unavailable for the occasion,” and perhaps understandably so: The winners of the Ig Nobel prize for Economics were authority figures of four Icelandic banks who demonstrated that “tiny banks can be rapidly transformed into huge banks, and vice versa” and “similar things can be done to an entire national economy.”
The winner of the mathematics prize, Gideon Gono of Zimbabwe’s Reserve Bank, was recognized for giving people an efficient way to cope with a wide gamut of numbers, by printing notes with denominations that ranged from one cent to one hundred trillion dollars. He too, was unable to make the ceremony.
The Ig Nobel ceremony’s organizers tried their best to keep attendees from getting bored: Its opening and closing speeches consisted of two words each, “welcome, welcome,” and “goodbye, goodbye,” leaving plenty of time for acts more thrilling than speeches.
In keeping with this year’s theme of “risk,” Dan Meyer, a 2007 Ig Nobel Laureate for his study entitled “Sword Swallowing and Its Side Effects,” asked ten Nobel Laureates to extricate swords from his throat using a whip without injuring him. Meyer finished the demonstration unhurt to uproarious applause from the audience.
There were breaks throughout the night, during which the audience could practice recycling by throwing hundreds of paper airplanes at a person on stage for a minute. On four occasions, the Big Bank Opera, a duet who musically parodied the timeline of the recent economic downturn, regaled the audience.
And in keeping with the “academic” tone of the ceremony, Nobel and Ig Nobel laureates alike educated the audience about their projects with 24-second explanations of their work and seven word generalized summaries of their topic. Paul Krugman, the 2008 Nobel Prize winner in economics, concisely described his research as, “greedy people competing make the world go round.”