Published online 3 October 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.1150

News

An Ig Nobel diary

Nature reports from the awards that celebrate the silliest science around.

IgNobel award ceremonyThe Ig Nobels: a festival of daftness.Improbable Research

I've been told to get a life any number of times, and one day I will. But until that happens, you'll know where to find me on the first Thursday night of October: here at Harvard University's Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, waiting for the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony to begin. This is the 18th year that the Igs have celebrated some of the more dubious achievements of science, with an unruly yet appreciative crowd.

7:31 p.m. The lights dim and a stage manager informs us that unauthorized chicken flights will be banned at this year's event. Damn! Why didn't they tell me that before I bought my ticket?

7:35 p.m. We're off to a novel start. A Harvard Medical School dean pulls a sword out of the throat of another man (a previous Ig Nobel winner), who shouts: "Welcome to the Igs!"

7:42 p.m. The event's organizer and master-of-ceremonies, Marc Abrahams – also the editor of Annals of Improbable Research - announces that the theme of this year's ceremony is "redundancy". But we already knew that, which makes his explanation rather, er, redundant …

7:49 p.m. Former Ig Nobel winners come to the podium to relive their past glory. One brags of terminating intractable hiccups with digital rectal massage; the other goes on about homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck. It seems we're not in Kansas anymore. We're not in Stockholm either.

7:55 p.m. At last, the first 2008 Ig Nobel Prize is handed out, recognizing the field of nutrition. The award goes to a pair of researchers who showed that manipulating the sound made by eating Pringles crisps can fool people into thinking a stale crisp is perfectly fresh1.

8:01 p.m. The Ig Nobel Peace Prize goes to a Swiss ethics committee for conferring "dignity" to plants and other living beings. There to claim the prize was Urs Thurnherr of the University of Education in Karlsruhe, Germany, who asked whether anyone in the audience had ever forgotten to water their plants. And supposing those plants subsequently died, he said, "did that make you uneasy in any way? If so, you may be ready for our paper"2.

8:06 p.m. Perhaps you've suffered from the problem of armadillos getting into your stuff and messing things up. I know I have. If that's the case, you'll sympathize with this year's winners of the Archaeology Prize, who documented the scrambling of their dig sites by live armadillos (dead ones evidently being less disruptive)3.

8:21 p.m. Dan Ariely of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, accepts the Medicine Prize for research showing that expensive fake medicine works better than cheap fake medicine4. Which makes a lot of sense, in a warped way. Twelve years ago, Ariely vowed "to be on this stage". Now that he's reached "this peak", he says, he's not sure where to go next — thereby summing up the dilemma of many an Ig Nobel prizewinner.

8:25 p.m. Three Japanese scientists - Toshiyuki Nakagaki, Ryo Kobayashi and Atsushi Tero - are singing something at the podium, elated about their Cognitive Science award. They showed that slime moulds can solve mazes and other puzzles,5 some that are even beyond human capabilities. "In some ways, slime mould is more intelligent than we are," Nakagaki privately confided before the ceremony.

8:30 p.m. Brent Jordan of the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, tells aspiring young male scientists exactly what they've always wanted to hear: "Research scientists can learn a lot from lap dancers." Jordan knows what he's talking about, as the co-author of a paper exploring how a lap dancer's ovulatory cycle affects her tip earnings — work deemed good enough to earn him a share of this year's Economics Prize6. One of his co-authors, Geoffrey Miller, dashes the hopes of some enthusiasts by saying he's not taking on any more research assistants in his lab.

8:39 p.m. Dorian Raymer of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, wins half the Physics Prize for a mathematical proof concerning the inevitability of knots7. Shell-shocked, Raymer seems to be at an almost total loss for words. "I never thought this moment would come," he says. "But it has."

8:42 p.m. It's time for a competition: 'Win a date with Benoît Mandelbrot'. The French mathematician and father of fractal geometry is now an emeritus professor at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. "If you want order in your chaos," the announcer says, "Dr Mandelbrot has what you want." The winner, a young woman nearly 60 years Mandelbrot's junior, gives the elderly mathematician a hug before asking: "What do we do now?"

8:59 p.m. Many people ponder that same question as they file out of the theatre. Perhaps some will follow Abrahams' advice - he suggests that the vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin might provide the second act of a perfect comedy double bill. 

Steve Nadis has attended every Ig Nobel ceremony since their inception, and often covers the silliness for Nature.

  • References

    1. Zampini, M. & Spence, C. J. Sens. Stud., 19, 347–363 (2004).
    2. Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology The Dignity of Living Beings With Regard to Plants. Moral Consideration of Plants for Their Own Sake. Report available at http://www.ekah.admin.ch/en/topics/dignity-of-creation/index.html
    3. Mello Araujo, A. G. & Marcelino J. C. Geoarchaeology 18, 433-460 (2003). | Article |
    4. Waber, R. L., Shiv, B., Carmon, Z. & Ariely, D. J. Am. Med. Assoc. 299, 1016-1017 (2008). | Article | ChemPort |
    5. Nakagaki, T., Yamada, H. & Tóth Á. Nature, 407, 470, (2000). | Article | PubMed | ChemPort |
    6. Miller, G., Tybur, J. M. & Jordan, B. D. Evol. Hum. Behav., 28, 375-381 (2007). | Article |
    7. Raymer, D. M. & Smith, D. E. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104, 16432-16437 (2007). | Article | PubMed |
Commenting is now closed.