CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—What happens in the brains of people who see Jesus in a piece of toast? What are the physics of slipping on a banana peel? Are people who see an ugly painting more pain-sensitive than if they see a beautiful one? How do reindeer react to humans disguised as polar bears? Oh, and have you wondered if defecating dogs are sensitive to changes in the Earth’s magnetic fields?
The recent ceremony for the Ig Nobel Prizes at Harvard’s regal Sanders Theatre answered these questions—and many more—in a sold-out spoof in which good-humored scientists made light of their own work and real Nobel laureates wearing silly hats handed out the awards. “Moments of Science” offered goofy on-stage lab experiments; “What’s Eating You,” a three-act mini-opera mocking today’s pill-popping culture, had its world premiere; and, at two designated breaks, the very enthusiastic 1,100-member audience deluged the stage with handmade paper airplanes. Think Monty Python on science steroids.
This intercontinental, if not intergalactic, event—now available on You Tube—is guaranteed to put a smile on even the most serious face and to change the oft-dreary public stereotype of science and scientists. To borrow a phrase from a Cyndi Lauper song, scientists “just want to have fun.” Or as the puckish creator of the Ig Nobels, Marc Abrahams, puts it, “first make people laugh and then make them think.”
Indeed, the “24th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony,” held September 18, did both in great style, providing a welcome mental break for a first-time attendee immersed, like many in the audience, in seriously bad news about the Islamic State, political strife in Washington, the deadly Ebola epidemic and the never-ending climate crisis. Despite the trappings of humor and silly-sounding descriptions, the science behind the Ig Nobel Prizes often has potential practical implications or relevance to ongoing research issues of larger import. But not always—sometimes it’s a simple matter of scientific curiosity exploring a single problem that captures the imagination of the Ig Nobel curators.
Abrahams, co-founder and editor of the Ig Nobels’ main sponsor, international science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research, set the tone for the august evening as the deadpan master-of-ceremonies dressed in black tails and top hat. In a format designed for even the shortest attention span, he warned the ten prize recipients to keep their acceptance speeches to no more than 60 seconds or endure the wrath of Miss Sweetie Poo, an adorable red-haired, nine-year-old named Jasper Milstein, who would repeatedly shout “Please stop. I’m bored” if they went over time. And she did, very loudly.
A highlight for me was the 90-second keynote address by the zany, 86-year-old Japanese inventor and showman known as Dr. NakaMats (aka Yoshiro Nakamatsu). A legend in his own time and mind—Abrahams likens him to the Wizard of Oz—Dr. NakaMats has more than 3,000 patents to his name and has run for office repeatedly but unsuccessfully in Tokyo. He received the 2005 Ig Nobel Nutrition Prize for photographing and retrospectively analyzing every meal he had consumed over 34 years (and counting).
Dressed in a white lab coat embroidered with “Sir Dr. NakaMats,” the droll inventor’s 2014 appearance was particularly plucky, given his June announcement that he’s been diagnosed with a rare life-threatening cancer. While he had once hoped to live to 144, he said he’s now focused on “inventing new food therapy for my cancer,” including a prototype for TwenTea, a health drink with, yes, 20 ingredients.
The Ig Nobel Prizes themselves are popular in Japan, as demonstrated by the seven or so Japanese broadcasters and news outlets in Cambridge to catch appearances not only by Dr. NakaMats, but also by the recipient of the 2014 Ig Nobel Physics Prize, the dapper Kiyoshi Mabuchi from Kitasato University.
For his paper, “Frictional Coefficient Under Banana Skin,” Mabuchi measured the amount of friction between a shoe, banana skin and the floor—important to know if you are a messy, absent-minded banana-eater. His team found that the slipperiness of stepping on a banana peel is due in large part to the lubricating effect of the skin’s “follicular gel.” In my brief interview, after capturing him from Japanese broadcasters, the banana-carrying Mabuchi said his Ig Nobel work had relevance to his research on friction and movement of human joints (Japan’s Asahi Shimbun correspondent filed this report).
I had more time with Ig Nobel Neuroscience winner Kang Lee, a University of Toronto psychologist who co-authored “Seeing Jesus in Toast: Neural and Behavioral Correlates of Face Pareidolia.” Seeing phantom faces in every-day objects “is perfectly normal, nothing to laugh about. It’s a sign of a vivid imagination” and perhaps the brain’s predisposition to see human faces, he said. The Chinese-Canadian researchers used brain scans to study facial recognition in experimental subjects who were shown random, noisy images and prompted to identify faces if they saw them (most did).
“I like to make jokes, and I can take a joke,” Kang confided before the ceremony. He got a big laugh on stage when told of finding a $49.99 Jesus-on-Toast toaster on eBay.
Ig Nobel Medicine Prize recipient Dr. Sonal Saraiya of the Detroit Medical Center talked about an unusual paper in the Annals of Otology, Rhinology and Laryngology on treating an uncontrollable nosebleed in a patient with a rare bleeding condition by nasal packing with strips of cured pork. “We tried everything. Thousands of dollars of standard medical procedures did not work,” she said. In desperation, the medical team turned to pork strips, an old wives’ trick that did work, perhaps because the salted meat caused swelling in the nose. Saraiya cautioned, however, that since the pork carries risk of infection it is a medical “last resort” —in other words, do not try this at home.
Saraiya, a 34-year-old pediatric otolaryngologist, had never heard of the Ig Nobel Prizes. But the unexpected invitation produced “a hearty laugh. This is exciting to be among people who appreciate humor in science,” she said before the ceremony. Her lively on-stage presentation was followed by a live demonstration of nasal nose packing—gross, but the resulting photo drew its own media fanfare.
The other Ig Nobel recipients, listed in full here, enthusiastically brought their own brand of humor to showcase their science, aided considerably by the talented Ig Nobel cast. The elegant Art Prize winner, Italian Marina de Tommaso, explained that beautiful art brings people pleasure, so it is not surprising that ugly art fared less well in an experiment measuring the relative pain people suffer viewing a painting while shot in the hand by a powerful laser beam.
Norwegian Arctic Prize winners Eigil Reimers and Sindre Eftestøl brought laughs with their images of humans disguised as polar bears who frightened Svalbard reindeer (research based in part on the dangers real polar bears, who are losing their territories because of melting ice, pose to reindeer and other animals). When they went overtime, the Arctic duo unsuccessfully tried to tempt the persistent Miss Sweetie Poo with cute stuffed polar bears.
The Czech and German recipients of the Biology Prize won for “carefully documenting that when dogs defecate and urinate, they prefer to align their body axis with Earth’s north-south geomagnetic field lines.”
After the ceremony, Johns Hopkins scientist Carol Greider, the 2009 Nobel Prize recipient in Physiology or Medicine, was still beaming after her first Ig Nobels appearance (the first-ever by a female Nobelist, said Abrahams). “I’m thrilled to do it. It’s a lot of fun and may get the general public, especially kids, excited about science,” Greider told me. Her 14-year-old daughter Gwendolyn Comfort helped with her “24/7 lecture:” 24 seconds of technical discourse on “telomeres,” the subject of her Nobel Prize work, and a seven-word lay summary: “Telomeres: keeping your cells alive since… forever.” Comfort complimented her mom: “It was funny.”
At the crowded Ig Nobel after-party, television crews, including a Russian television correspondent, were still trailing the exhausted Abrahams. Introducing a little geopolitical seriousness, the reporter asked archly why there were no winners this year from her country: “Is this related to the sanctions?” Abrahams, not so seriously, replied, “No, it’s not. Russia could try harder.”
“We find 10 stories that are completely surprising and bizarre that the world has overlooked,” says Abrahams, who looks for science research that is “funny and gets in your head and rattles around so that a week later you want to call your friends and tell them about it.” About 9,000 new nominations come in each year (some 10 percent from people nominating themselves, who almost never win). The winners even pay their own way to Boston for the ceremony.
The extensive global publicity for the the Ig Nobel Prizes, as well as the Annals of Improbable Research and associated books, helps promote the serious goals of using humor to break down traditional barriers between science and the public, encouraging scientists to be better communicators, students to go into science and engaging the public (Abrahams would chastise me for too many words!). The annual September ceremony is a warm-up act and tribute, in a weirdly endearing way, to the eagerly anticipated and very serious Nobel Prize announcements starting this year on October 6. “We get off the world stage before the Nobels come,” says Abrahams.