I'm standing amidst a throng of people in the entrance hall of Harvard University's historic Sanders theatre. Before me stands a man, wielding a flash light, who is coated from head to toe in gleaming silver body paint; he is wearing nothing, save for a pair of reading glasses and a tiny, aluminum-colored speedo. To my right, a scientist in a lab coat is working away feverishly at the bellows of an accordion. On my left, Nobel laureate Roy Glauber (physics, 2005) squeezes past me with a smile and a nod. Oh, and I'm pretty sure I just saw Amanda Palmer.
Am I dreaming? No. By all accounts this is better than dreaming; I am in attendance at the Twenty-First 1st Annual Ig Nobel Awards Ceremony.
The brainchild of Marc Abrahams — editor of the scientific humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research —the Ig Nobels (or "Igs" for short) were established in 1991 to pique peoples' interest in science, medicine, and technology by recognizing those research projects and societal contributions that first make people laugh, and then make them think.
The Igs are modeled loosely (and I do mean loosely) after the real Nobel Prize ceremonies held every year in Stockholm, Sweden. Yes, like the Nobel Prize ceremony, the Igs acknowledge scientists, artists, and public figures for contributing towards their respective fields…but that's pretty much where the similarities end.
Just about every aspect of the event is steeped in unconventionality. The audience, overtly vocal and incredibly boisterous, whoops and applauds like a mob of raucous sports fans at any mention of "chemistry," the theme of this year's ceremonial proceedings; a strict 60-second rule is enforced by an eight year old girl who is all too happy to yowl "please stop, I'm BORED!" in the face of any award recipient unfortunate enough to drone on for longer than a minute while delivering an acceptance speech; members of the audience, over 1200 of them, are encouraged to hurl paper airplanes at the stage at various points throughout the evening.
It's also the only ceremony in the world where you can listen to Nobel laureates partake in an operatic ode to coffee's effects on the human sphincter.
Winners at this year's Igs included a team of Japanese researchers awarded the prize in chemistry for their invention of a fire alarm that uses airborne wasabi to rouse deaf people from their sleep in the event of a fire; while scientists from the US, the Netherlands, and the UK were awarded the prize in medicine for "demonstrating that people make better decisions about some kinds of things – but worse decisions about other kinds of things – when thy have a strong urge to urinate."
But the crowd favorite was almost certainly the winner of the Ig Nobel Peace Prize: Arturas Zuokas, the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, who, earlier this year, demonstrated that "the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with an armored tank."
For those of you who missed the live broadcast, be sure to check out the video recording of the ceremonies featured up top. You can also tune into NPR's Science Friday program the day after Thanksgiving for their annual broadcast of the event.
The full list of 2011 Ig Nobel Prizes and award recipients can be found below.
The 2011 Ig Nobel Prize winners:
Anna Wilkinson (of the UK), Natalie Sebanz (of The Netherlands, Hungary, and AUSTRIA), Isabella Mandl (of Austria) and Ludwig Huber (of Austria) for their study ‘No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise."
REFERENCE: ‘No Evidence Of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise Geochelone carbonaria," Anna Wilkinson, Natalie Sebanz, Isabella Mandl, Ludwig Huber, Current Zoology, vol. 57, no. 4, 2011. pp. 477-84.
Makoto Imai, Naoki Urushihata, Hideki Tanemura, Yukinobu Tajima, Hideaki Goto, Koichiro Mizoguchi and Junichi Murakami of Japan, for determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi (pungent horseradish) to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency, and for applying this knowledge to invent the wasabi alarm.
REFERENCE: US patent application 2010/0308995 A1. Filing date: Feb 5, 2009.
Mirjam Tuk (of The Netherlands and the UK), Debra Trampe (of The Netherlands) and Luk Warlop (of Belgium). and jointly to Matthew Lewis, Peter Snyder and Robert Feldman (of the USA), Robert Pietrzak, David Darby, and Paul Maruff (of Australia) for demonstrating that people make better decisions about some kinds of things - but worse decisions about other kinds of things‚ when they have a strong urge to urinate.
REFERENCE: "Inhibitory spillover: Increased Urination Urgency Facilitates Impulse Control in Unrelated Domains," Mirjam A. Tuk, Debra Trampe and Luk Warlop, Psychological Science, vol. 22, no. 5, May 2011, pp. 627-633.
REFERENCE: "The Effect of Acute Increase in Urge to Void on Cognitive Function in Healthy Adults," Matthew S. Lewis, Peter J. Snyder, Robert H. Pietrzak, David Darby, Robert A. Feldman, Paul T. Maruff, Neurology and Urodynamics, vol. 30, no. 1, January 2011, pp. 183-7.
Karl Halvor Teigen of the University of Oslo, Norway, for trying to understand why, in everyday life, people sigh.
REFERENCE: "Is a Sigh ‘Just a Sigh'? Sighs as Emotional Signals and Responses to a Difficult Task," Karl Halvor Teigen, Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, vol. 49, no. 1, 2008, pp. 49–57.
John Perry of Stanford University, USA, for his Theory of Structured Procrastination, which says: To be a high achiever, always work on something important, using it as a way to avoid doing something that's even more important.
REFERENCE: "How to Procrastinate and Still Get Things Done," John Perry, Chronicle of Higher Education, February 23, 1996. Later republished elsewhere under the title "Structured Procrastination."
Darryl Gwynne (of Canada and Australia and the USA) and David Rentz (of Australia and the USA) for discovering that a certain kind of beetle mates with a certain kind of Australian beer bottle.
REFERENCE: "Beetles on the Bottle: Male Buprestids Mistake Stubbies for Females (Coleoptera)," D.T. Gwynne, and D.C.F. Rentz, Journal of the Australian Entomological Society, vol. 22, 1983, pp. 79-80.
REFERENCE: "Beetles on the Bottle," D.T. Gwynne and D.C.F. Rentz, Antenna: Proceedings (A) of the Royal Entomological Society London, vol. 8, no. 3, 1984, pp. 116-7.
Philippe Perrin, Cyril Perrot, Dominique Deviterne and Bruno Ragaru (of France), and Herman Kingma (of The Netherlands), for determining why discus throwers become dizzy, and why hammer throwers don't.
REFERENCE: "Dizziness in Discus Throwers is Related to Motion Sickness Generated While Spinning," Philippe Perrin, Cyril Perrot, Dominique Deviterne, Bruno Ragaru and Herman Kingma, Acta Oto-laryngologica, vol. 120, no. 3, March 2000, pp. 390–5.
Dorothy Martin of the USA (who predicted the world would end in 1954), Pat Robertson of the USA (who predicted the world would end in 1982), Elizabeth Clare Prophet of the USA (who predicted the world would end in 1990), Lee Jang Rim of KOREA (who predicted the world would end in 1992), Credonia Mwerinde of UGANDA (who predicted the world would end in 1999), and Harold Camping of the USA (who predicted the world would end on September 6, 1994 and later predicted that the world will end on October 21, 2011), for teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations.
Arturas Zuokas, the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, for demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with an armored tank.
PUBLIC SAFETY PRIZE
John Senders of the University of Toronto, Canada, for conducting a series of safety experiments in which a person drives an automobile on a major highway while a visor repeatedly flaps down over his face, blinding him.
REFERENCE: "The Attentional Demand of Automobile Driving," John W. Senders, et al., Highway Research Record, vol. 195, 1967, pp. 15-33.