Published online 6 October 2006 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news061002-13

News

Ig Nobel diary

A personal account of the silliest Nobels around.

Nobel Prize laureate Roy Glauber carries a broom to sweep stray paper airplanes. LISTEN to Nature's podcast of the Ig Nobels.Nobel Prize laureate Roy Glauber carries a broom to sweep stray paper airplanes.LISTEN to Nature's podcast of the Ig Nobels.CHARLES KRUPA/AP/EMPICS

While respectable folks are in Sweden, attending the real thing, I'm here at Harvard for the low-rent alternative: the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. That's the one that famously aims to award quirky scientific research that "first makes you laugh, then makes you think".

The Sanders Theatre is packed — the anticipation so thick it could be cut with a scalpel by those two men in white lab coats, just before they cart us all off to the loony bin.

Looking about the hall, as spitballs and paper airplanes fly through the air, I feel a bit sheepish: this crowd of innocents has no idea what's in store. It is the 16th Ig Nobel ceremony and I hold the dubious distinction of having witnessed every single one, an attendance record perhaps matched only by the event's organizer, Marc Abrahams, and his mother.

I know it's nothing to brag about. Maybe someday I'll get a life. But until I do, I'll sit back and enjoy the Igs.

7:26 pm: Some people are dancing onstage to Franz Liszt, which is OK with me. But I've got pencils to sharpen. This year, there's no press kit listing all the winners: no 'cheat sheet'. So I've got to take notes.

7:31 pm: A Harvard official tells us about "new security regulations" banning paper airplanes. But the crowd pays him no mind. As if to drive the point home, an airplane suddenly dive bombs my head.

7:35 pm: Kees Moeliker, a 2003 Ig winner for reporting the first case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck, is at the podium with a woman, evidently his wife, saying he just got married. "And this is our honeymoon!" The crowd eats it up.

7:38 pm: The ceremony begins: a handful of Nobel laureates muster their courage and enter the lion's den, followed by the Ig Nobel laureates, the King and Queen of Swedish meatballs, and various other Ignitaries. The theme of this year's show is inertia, which means that Lawyers For and Against Inertia will be parading any minute now. Plus there's going to be an opera: it's about two young sisters (one is at rest and tends to stay at rest, the other... you get the picture).

8:08 pm: The first Ig is presented in ornithology, for investigations into why woodpeckers don't get headaches. Ivan Schwab of the University of California, Davis, accepts the prize and dons a woodpecker headdress. (Click here for the full list of award winners.)

8:25 pm: Another classic Ig tradition — scientists attempt to sum up their field in seven words. Frank Wilczek of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology does dark matter and dark energy: "What you see isn't what you get."

8:35pm: Daniel Oppenheimer of Princeton earns the literature prize for his paper on the needless use of long words. "Conciseness is interpreted as intelligence," he says as his acceptance speech. "So, thank you."

8:42pm: University of Tennessee scholar Francis Fesmire, the first person to terminate hiccoughs through digital rectal massage, captures the medicine prize. He claims his son consoled him about winning an Ig Nobel rather than a regular Nobel. "It's like winning a Darwin," the son told him, "and you don't have to die."

8:52pm: A rowdy crew behind me has been catcalling all night, and now takes up the battle cry of "Inertia!" A born follower, I shout too. And when they throw things, I throw too. Sometimes their antics strike me as sophomoric. Then I realize they really are sophomores. So that's their excuse, but what's mine?

9:11pm: Marc Abrahams calls it a night, setting off a mass exodus. I pack up my pencils and follow the herd. Outside, as I unlock my bike, I reflect on what I've just seen and wonder what next year will bring. I mentally prepare an acceptance speech, just in case.

Watch this site for Steve Nadis's upcoming, in-depth analysis of some of the more intriguing prizes awarded at the Igs, plus a podcast of interviews with the winners and more.

Visit our nobeldiary.html">newsblog to read and post comments about this story.