Thursday night, we finally found out who won the most exciting awards in science! Well, maybe “exciting” isn’t the best word for the 22nd Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. Perhaps I should say “bizarre,” or even “hilarious.” Every autumn, scientists from all over the world gather at Harvard to “honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.” Like the Nobel Prizes, the Ig Nobels include categories such as peace, physics, and chemistry. In fact, Nobel laureates traditionally present the awards during the ceremony.
But that’s where the parallels end. It’s unlikely that the Nobel Peace Prize would go to Russians who turn old ammunition into miniscule diamonds for use in medical imaging. Or that analyzing the motion of a ponytail would earn the prestigious Nobel for physics. Only the Ig Nobel Prizes would reward scientists for studying why coffee sloshes out of the cup, testing the brain activity of dead fish, creating a speech jammer, and writing a report about reports about reports.
Marc Abrahams enjoys writing operas, but until a few years ago had never even been to one. Abrahams is the editor and co-creator of the Annals of Improbable Research, the science humor magazine that gave birth to the Ig Nobel awards, a marvelous celebration of quirky but intelligent scientific breakthroughs. For the last 15 years Abrahams has been tasked with writing a scientific opera for the ceremony.
This year’s theme was bacteria, so naturally Abrahams wrote an opera about the bacteria living on a woman’s tooth, and their (eventually tragic) efforts to escape. The video of this year’s Ig Nobel ceremony is below (skip to the following times to view the four acts of the bacterial opera: Act I at 54:30, Act II at 1:07:20, Act III at 1:29:10, and Act IV at 1:52:00). Discoblog talked with Abrahams to get the scoop on the bacterial-opera-writing business.
Discoblog: This is the 15th Ig Nobel opera–why did you choose to do operas instead of a ballet, slam poetry session, haiku contest, or something else?
Marc Abrahams: In the Ig’s second year, we realized that we had this once in a lifetime grouping of people there, and we decided to take advantage of it. One of the things we try to stick in is a public event, done in a different way, that everybody has had to sit through too many times. We’ve had a ballet once or twice, we’ve had a fashion show, and I guess it was about the sixth year we got to an opera.
DB: So why does the opera work so well?
MA: Well, the brilliant words of course. (laughs)
Part of it is we take it very seriously. It’s done by very good performers and staged and put together really well, and people don’t expect that. An awful lot of people who come haven’t seen professional opera singers, and when you are in a room with one, it can be quite entrancing and astounding. At the end of the opera, most of the scientists come on and are having the time of their lives doing it.
DB: How do you go about writing an opera on a new topic every year?
MA: Bacteria was the theme we had chosen for the ceremony, and so I came up with the basic plot of the opera, and then since I don’t know a lot about bacteria myself I started reading a lot and calling up friends and scientists. Originally the bacteria were going to live on somebody’s eyelashes because that seemed a natural place, because they could see what the person would.
Then Harriet Provine [microbiologist at Harvard Medical School] almost instantly said, “Well, you know, if you are a bacterium that’s not the place you really want to be living. It’s not moist, there isn’t a lot to eat there.” We decided that the mouth would probably be the ideal place, and that quickly got localized to a front tooth, because then they would have access to the light–all the person has to do is have her mouth open.
Hit the jump for the video.
The list of wacky science discoveries from the Ig Nobel awards announced last night includes teams who made strides in vital fields like bat fellatio and curing diseases via roller coaster rides.
The awards are given out every year for discoveries that made us both laugh and think. Here’s a full list of the winning teams and projects:
“We live in the south of New Zealand in a very hilly city (we have the steepest street in the world!), and intermittent icy conditions in winter can create major havoc,” she said.
Management: A mathematical study by researchers in Italy found that in some business situations, it is better to promote randomly than the choose the most qualified candidates.
Engineering: A team based in the UK and Mexico found the perfect way to collect whale snot–send a remote controlled helicopter in to do it for you. The team members explained the technique to ABC News:
“The technique involves flying a remote-controlled helicopter above a whale as it surfaces and catching the whale blow in petri dishes attached to the underside of the helicopter,” they said in a statement.