Six Nobel laureates convened at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre last Thursday for the 2014 Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, presenting ten awards to fellow scientists being recognized for strange research.
In the past, winning research has included the likes of the famous “levitating frog” and studies on the celestial-navigation abilities of beetles, and winners are often even more interesting than their work suggests.
Expecting to meet some singular characters, I arrived at Sanders just in time for press interviews, two hours before doors opened to the public. Amidst the professional camera crews and buzzing reporters were the winners — in physics, neuroscience, psychology, public health, biology, art, economics, medicine, and arctic science.
I got acquainted in particular with the researchers who bravely dressed up as polar bears to gauge the response of wild reindeers in Norway. Simultaneously, in the lobby, the “Boston Squeezebox Ensemble,” composed of less-than-professional accordion players, serenaded the hall with an earsplitting collection of songs.
Other notables included a researcher from Italy who found that people looking at paintings they liked actually felt less pain while being shot with lasers; she hopes her work can be used in hospital waiting rooms. She wasn’t too keen on the idea of receiving an Ig Nobel prize at first, because her colleagues consider it an insult, but she was convinced to attend the ceremony.
Another team, however, was very excited to be there; in fact, they even gave me a collective cheer when I asked them how they reacted to their Ig Nobel. The international team had observed the defecating and urinating positions of dogs for two years, and they found that dogs detect magnetic fields and orient themselves north-south. Wonderful stuff.
Armed with a fancy camera, I took my seat in the press box on the balcony as the theater filled up with over 1,000 spectators. The night got stranger as soon as the Ig Nobels actually began, when audience members threw paper airplanes at the stage in an annual tradition known as the “deluge.”
In between the presentations of the awards (consisting of a large plastic plate and ten trillion Zimbabwean dollars), the coordinators of the event found creative ways to keep the audience amused. In accordance with this year’s food theme, performers put on a three-act mini-opera about the intriguing concept of using pills as a replacement for actual meals. The singing, surprisingly, wasn’t too bad.
Perhaps the best appearance of the night was by world-renowned Dr. NakaMats, who won the 2005 Ig Nobel in Nutrition for photographing every meal he consumed over 34 years. He’s also a prolific inventor, having patented over 4,000 products, including a wig that can be used for self-defense. A few lucky audience members (not myself, sadly) won a date with him and joined him on stage for a quick hug.
The final Ig tradition, the annual goodbye speech, followed the opera’s finale. Professor Jean Berko Gleason of Boston University came to the podium to utter a simple “Goodbye, goodbye,” before the last act on the playbill, the “disappearance of the audience,” commenced.
These Ig Nobel prizes, which began in 1991, are organized by the Annals for Improbable Research, a scientific humor magazine that goes by the slogan that it “makes people LAUGH and then THINK.” The purpose of the ceremony is not to ridicule science, but rather to make it more interesting, in the belief that nothing is truly useless or trivial. A slightly wild-looking Ig winner from Prague who studied a rodent parasite told me, much to my surprise, that he hopes to treat schizophrenia through his work. I’m still coming to terms with how extraordinary the evening was.
Sometimes, incredibly applicable science comes from esoteric research. The Ig Nobels, aside from being an evening of amusement and weird fun, are reminders that “Good achievements can also be odd, funny, and even absurd,” as the Improbable Research website puts it. Who knows where these Ig Nobel laureates might find their work being used in the future?