Awards Praise Bizarre Science

The 22nd Ig Nobel Ceremony—a prize ceremony that parodies the famous Nobel Prize by celebrating not the best, but the most bizarre that science has to offer—began on Thursday night with a thirty-second paper airplane deluge.

And from there it only became more bizarre. A motorized balloon clownfish floated around the auditorium throughout the night and a man and a woman covered in silver body paint held flashlights by the wings of Sanders Theater as “human spotlights” shining brightly upon the evening’s Ig Nobel prizewinners.

Marc Abrahams, the editor of Improbable Research—the organization that produces the prize ceremony—led the night’s festivities by welcoming the prizewinners, who he described as people who each in their own way “do something something that first makes you laugh, and then makes you think.”

The Ig Nobel prizewinners, ten in all, were awarded shiny hourglass-shaped awards by a handful of actual Nobel Prize winners for serious research with a humorous touch.

The winner of the Ig Nobel Prize for Chemistry was Johan Petterson. “I have made a study of small villages in Southern Sweden where hair had become green-tinted,”  said Petterson.

The Ig Nobel Prize for Anatomy was given to Frans de Waal and Jennifer Pokorny, who discovered that chimpanzees have the ability to recognize individual chimpanzees both by their faces and by their rear ends.

“They can look at a face and say this face belongs to this behind,” said de Waal. “It’s not an inborn capacity. They have to learn it.”

De Waal is a longtime fan of the Ig Nobels. “It generates a lot of excitement, because people want to have fun instead of [seeing] scientists always being presented in a very serious way,” he said.  “This is a moment we could laugh at it...although these are good studies.”

Abrahams shared this sentiment, saying in his opening remarks that “these achievements speak for themselves all too eloquently.”

The theme of the evening was “The Universe,” a catchword that had the audience cheering any time it was mentioned throughout the night.  Throughout the ceremony, a mini opera entitled “The Intelligent Designer and the Universe” premiered in four acts.

The opera’s final line was “This is how the Universe decays into insanity.”

The verdict is still out for the Universe, but for the Ig Nobels, it seemed this was the case indeed.

The Ig Nobel ceremony will be followed by an informal talk on Saturday at MIT with the Ig Nobel prizewinners. The Thursday ceremony will be broadcast on NPR the day after Thanksgiving as part of the ‘Science Friday’ show.

—Staff writer Charles W. Sorensen can be reached at csorensen@college.harvard.edu.

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