It’s not everyday you get to see a Nobel laureate and a Harvard professor sing “The Elements” while one of them plays the accordion. Yet that’s exactly what happened last night when Richard J. Roberts, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Medicine, and Harvard medical professor Thomas Michel performed during the opening ceremonies of the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony. Held annually in the Sanders Theatre at Harvard University, the Ig Nobels celebrate unconventional achievements in all fields of science and include performances from professors, Nobel Laureates, and professional opera singers. Chemistry was the theme of this year’s ceremony, and in that spirit each winner received a model table inscribed with the elemental symbols on the surface — a literal table of the elements.
The Ig Nobels honor strange scientific achievements, like a study conducted by Japanese scientists investigating the ideal concentration of airborne wasabi to be used as an alarm to awaken sleeping people in case of an emergency. The team won the chemistry Ig Nobel prize for discovering that the most effective wasabi concentration was between 5 and 50 ppm. They plan to expand their technology to be used as a shoe-odor eliminator and sushi topping in the future.
Two teams from Europe and the United States/Australia were both presented with the medicine prize for their investigations into the need to urinate. The European study found that people with a strong urge to urinate were better at suppressing impulses, including “increasing ability to resist more immediate temptations in monetary decision making.” The other group discovered that an intense need to urinate and staying up for 24 hours continuously have the same negative effect on driving ability. One of the scientists summed it up in his acceptance speech, saying, “When you gotta go, you gotta go.”
The literature prize was awarded to John R. Perry of Stanford University for his Theory of Structured Procrastination. The theory states, “to be a high achiever, always work on something important, using it as a way to avoid doing something that’s even more important.”
Students may be interested in reading his study, “How to Procrastinate and Still Get Things Done.” Part of his paper is about procrastinating by doing tasks that are still somewhat important. “Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list … the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen,” the study reads. Since the professor himself was in Germany last night, Perry’s assistant accepted the prize for him.
Arturas Zuokas, the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, won the Ig Nobel Peace Prize for his discovery that “the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with an armored tank.”
As many scientists aspire to do, Zuokas successfully put his research into practice in his town this August. To laughter and cheering from the audience, Zuokas said that his work reaches worldwide because “an idiot is the same no matter where he is and what language he speaks,” and that this discovery helps lessen idiocy.
The lineup of quirky discoveries continued when it came time for the psychology prize. Karl H. Teigen of the University of Oslo and his students studied the possible reasons people sigh. Observing test subjects attempting to solve impossible puzzles, the Norwegian team discovered, perhaps unsurprisingly, that a sigh is a sign of giving up. Teigen says this research was intended as an exercise for his students, and, since their work dealt in a previously uninvestigated field, they had to “invent [their] own sigh-cology” as a part of the process.
The comedic atmosphere of the Ig Nobels was enhanced between the presentation of awards. The audience was entertained by “Chemist in a Coffee Shop,” a mini-opera about chemical composition and the effects of coffee. Attendees also “recycled” paper airplanes made from their programs by throwing them at a human target on the stage. In another audience participation effort, one audience member won a date with 1988 Nobel Prize in Medicine winner Louis J. Ignarro, famous for demonstrating the signaling properties of nitric oxide.
The crowd at the Ig Nobels included several delegations dressed in costumes. Two groups from MIT made an appearance — Maseeh Hall sent a group wearing atomic mass numbers on their shirts and sporting foil helmets, while five members of “Epsilon Sigma Pi” — the Educational Studies Program — dressed up in hats shaped like sea creatures. One of the ESP members, Ben W. Horkley ’14, said that they came to “celebrate science” and that their costumes were influenced by “a deep love of crustaceans.”
Non-MIT delegations in attendance included the Studmuffins of Science, Museum of Bad Art, and Lawyers For and Against Chemistry.
The ceremony this year included seriousness amidst the celebration when the hosts paid tribute to William N. Lipscomb with a video comprised of his moments from past awards ceremonies. Lipscomb, a Harvard chemistry professor and 1976 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, participated in the Ig Nobels for many years before he passed away this spring. The video showed scenes of him acting in skits, performing with his clarinet, and tying his signature bow tie. The tribute to Lipscomb was both tactful and touching while still revealing his jovial personality, and the tribute fit seamlessly into the rest of the show.
The Ig Nobels this year provided a source of laughter, but also food for thought. Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research and master of ceremonies, summed it up when he said the awards show “makes people laugh, and then think.”
Those interested in learning more about the research behind the laughs may attend the free informal lectures by the Ig Nobel prize winners, which will be held tomorrow at 1 p.m. in 26-100.