There is no such thing as bad science — or at least that’s the general theme of the Ig Nobels. Every year, Nobel laureates convene at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre to award ten lucky groups Ig Nobel awards, consisting of “ten trillion Zimbabwean dollars” and a potted plant. And all they had to do was come up with some of the strangest scientific results.
Organized by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research, the Ig Nobels honors findings that “make people LAUGH and then THINK,” to quote their slogan. Ig Nobel laureates, or “Ignitiaries,” are lauded for their crazy and often unexpected results. Past winners include a team that was able to levitate a frog using magnets and a biologist who established the efficacy of soda as a spermicide. There are ten categories in which one can win an Ig: chemistry, physics, biology, literature, management, economics, medicine, mathematics, diagnostic medicine, and physiology/entomology.
Winners from this year performed research ranging from the somewhat-useful (developing a way to harness mechanical energy and unboil the whites of an egg) to the incredibly pointless (attaching a tail to a chicken so it walks in a fashion that mimics a dinosaur).
Patricia Wang and her team from Taiwan, for example, concluded that most mammals take 21 seconds to empty their bladder regardless of its size. The Slovakian winners of the medicine prize, on the other hand, charted the persistence of male DNA in female saliva even one hour after intense kissing.
There are ironic prizes as well; the Bangkok Metropolitan Police were awarded the Economics prize for their policy of offering policemen cash incentives for refusing to accept bribes. Unfortunately, the police did not show up to collect their prize.
Although only an hour and a half, the ceremony was also punctuated with various peculiar segments; the traditional “welcome, welcome” and “goodbye, goodbye” speeches to open and close the event consisted of two people, quite literally, solely uttering the words “welcome” and “goodbye.” Sporadic moments of science (instead of silence) included looking at spectral lines for hydrogen and hearing the sound of helium fill a wooden box. There was also a three-act mini opera about the theme of this year’s ceremony: life. At two points in the show, audience members folded up pieces of paper into airplanes and flew them at the stage. The awards were on a strict time schedule, and presenters only had one minute for their acceptance speeches; if they dared to go over, an eight-year-old girl deemed “Miss Sweetie Poo” stormed up to the podium and shouted, “Please stop! I’m bored.” This happened multiple times.
All the prize winners will be giving extended addresses at the Ig Informal Lectures hosted by MIT this Saturday, Sept. 19.
While some people might be insulted to win an Ig Nobel, other scientists embraced it. A team of doctors from the UK, for example, noticed that appendicitis can be loosely diagnosed based on how a patient feels pain after traveling over a speed bump. They showed their excitement by dressing up as a “road bump ahead” sign. The presenters donned ridiculous gear, too: think vibrant bow ties, silly hats, and neon tuxedos.
But even some researchers admitted that not every research program was worth continuing. The scientists behind the chicken-tail biomechanics were asked about the future of their project. They laughed.
“No,” they said. “We are done.”