By Steve Nadis
The first speaker at Harvard’s Sanders Theater last night set the tone for the entire proceedings, going into a lengthy discussion of paper airplanes and their eventual throwing—an undertaking that would purportedly adhere to the strictest modern flight regulations. “Do not throw them yet, as the ceremony has not yet officially begun,” the speaker, a safety monitor of some sort, admonished the crowd. “The ceremony will not start until I give the countdown and say, ‘Go.’ After I give the countdown, you can begin throwing paper airplanes. You have 30 seconds to do so. Make them count.”
Hundreds, if not thousands, of airplanes were soon launched, and so began the twenty-third Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony. It’s an annual ritual dedicated to the zany underbelly of science—the curious investigations and even weirder findings that emerge from them, which won’t win any of the participants a trip to Stockholm but might win them a one way (no-expenses-paid) trip to Cambridge, Mass., where dubious notoriety awaits them.
The event is also dedicated, as noted, to paper airplanes, during two 30-second intervals of joyful mayhem. My attempts at unmanned flight were, I’m sad to say, abysmal—brief trajectories invariably ending in nosedives. As paper detritus was cleared from the stage, the master of ceremonies, Marc Abrahams, took the podium to welcome “our most special guests, the new Ig Nobel Prize winners.” Every one of them, Abrahams said, “has done something that makes you laugh and then makes you think.” And if you think too hard about it, you might even cry, especially if you’re slicing an onion at the time—but more on that later…
Ig Nobels for Beer, Beetles and Bob Dylan
Abrahams is the originator of this show and the driving force behind it, but the task of keeping the trains running on time, so to speak, falls on the diminutive shoulders of a cute but obstinate eight-year-old girl called Miss Sweetie Poo. Her responsibility is to prevent speakers and pontificators from droning on endlessly. After a minute (and not a second more), she gives them the boot, by repeating, in a whiny tone of ever-increasing volume: “Please stop, I’m bored. Please stop, I’m bored…” While the routine can get tiresome, it is extremely effective. I know this firsthand, having been cut off by a previous incarnation of Miss Sweetie Poo, and it’s not a pleasant experience. Last night, others learned that lesson the hard way.
The Psychology Prize, for example, went to the authors of the paper “Beauty is in the Eye of the Beer Holder,” which found that peoples’ sense of their own attractiveness rose as they consumed more alcohol. One of the winners—outfitted with a guitar and harmonica like Bob Dylan—was singing a tune about “the correlation between attraction and intoxication” when he was stopped cold, mid-stanza, by the aforementioned eight-year-old.
The joint prize in Astronomy and Biology went to an international team for discovering that dung beetles which have gotten off track can find their way home by looking at the Milky Way. A Physics Prize winner told the crowd that “feats like running on the surface of a pond, that only lizards and birds can do, [are] also possible for humans. But these people must be on another planet.”
“The Blonsky Device,” a mini-opera in four acts, had its world premiere during the Igs, offering musical interludes to break up the award ceremony. The opera was centered around an apparatus (the inventors of which had previously captured an Ig Nobel Prize) for facilitating childbirth through the use of centrifugal force. “Precise rotation will cause cessation of the gestation,” the singers crooned. “It hastens the child’s naissance. What say we go for a spin?”
In another diversion, speakers were asked to encapsulate a difficult topic in seven words. Harvard chemist Dudley Herschbach explained torque—a theme possibly inspired by the opera—thusly: “To start or stop spinning, apply torque.” Harvard statistics professor Xiao-Li Meng summed up his field as follows: “The only crystal ball approved by God.”
There were more antics, including goofy science demonstrations and the traditional Win-a-Date-with-a-Nobel-Laureate contest. But eventually Abrahams brought things back to the main event, continuing the task at hand. The Chemistry Prize winners identified the enzyme unleashed during the chopping of an onion that makes people cry.
The Peace Prize was awarded to the government of Belarus for banning public applause and even going so far as to arrest a one-armed man for clapping. The victors in Probability concluded, among other things, that the longer a cow is lying down, the more likely it will soon stand up. “I’ve been studying cows for most of my career and speak with some authority when I say that cows can be really boring. When you write a paper about cows, make sure you have a good title,” a group spokesman urged the audience.
After many hands were shook and photographs taken, Abrahams released the crowd, wishing everyone “better luck next year” in the event that they hadn’t won an Ig Nobel Prize this time around and especially if they did.
A student sitting near me stood up, commenting on a paper airplane he hadn’t noticed before that had gone wasted. He left it on the floor, and I picked it up, giving it one last ceremonial heave. This ultralight craft, like the ones I tried lofting earlier in the program, plummeted swiftly to the ground. In keeping with Abrahams’ advice, I hoped for better luck next year and then decided there was still time to do something about it—to make my own luck, as they say. I had twelve months, give or take, to brush up on my airplane fabrication and tossing techniques. “Make it count,” I told myself.
Steve Nadis, a frequent contributor to Discover, is a veteran of the Ig Nobel Prize ceremonies, having attended—and written about—21 out of the 23 events to date. He got two years off for good behavior.
See here for a complete list of the 2013 Ig winners.