Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony | The Mad Scientists’ Ball

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John P. Schmelzer

Often the smartest person in the room is also the weirdest, a fact that is rarely more evident than at Harvard University’s annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. For one evening every fall, the average IQ inside Sanders Theatre spikes as the brightest minds around (and that’s a high bar in Cambridge) gather to toast the strangest research (of any vintage) selected by the Ig Nobel board from a vast pool of nominations.

The stage is littered with performers and professors dressed in outfits of varying levels of ridiculousness. There’s a pair imitating Siamese twins, sharing a single dress. A few people holding flashlights are decked out in silver paint and Speedos: human spotlights, we’re told. Funny hats abound, and we’re pretty sure that for tonight, at least, the lab coats are being worn ironically.

Marc Abrahams, the event’s founder and editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, takes the stage in tails and a tattered top hat. He welcomes the crowd and reminds everyone that they’re here tonight to honor “research that first makes you laugh and then makes you think.”

What follows next is hard to describe. The evening is part awards ceremony, part variety show. There’s a “Win a Date with a Nobel Laureate” raffle, a paper-airplane-throwing contest, and a four-act mini-opera about bacteria.

The prizes themselves (handed out by actual Nobel laureates) are equally tongue-in-cheek. In 2010 a prize in transportation planning was awarded to a group of Japanese and British researchers who’d used slime molds to determine the optimal routes for railroad tracks. The peace prize went to a British team who’d proved that swearing reduces pain (though less so in those who swear frequently, so don’t overdo it). The engineering prize went to a British and Mexican team who’d mastered a way of using remote-control helicopters to collect snot from whales in the wild. In her acceptance speech, Dr. Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse pointedly asked, “How else can you sample the largest living mammal without touching it?”

While in some ways the Ig Nobels are science’s booby prizes, it’s important to note that all of the winners are real scientists making real contributions. Take, for example, Dr. Francis Fesmire, who won the prize in medicine in 2006 for his 1988 paper “Termination of Intractable Hiccups with Digital Rectal Massage.” While giggle-inducing for most of us, this is an important breakthrough if you’ve been hiccupping steadily for more than a month.

The awards ceremony is a celebration of the fact that sometimes the pursuit of knowledge takes you to some very strange places. Far from mocking the winners, the crowd is openly jealous, giving credence to the widely held belief that at the core of every regular scientist, there’s a mad scientist trying to get out.

At the end of the evening, Abrahams takes the stage one last time. Addressing the crowd, he announces, “If you didn’t win an Ig Nobel Prize this year, and especially if you did, better luck next year.”

For more information on the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, visit: improbable.com/ig


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