IG NOBEL DIARY — by Steve Nadis

If you go through life thinking you’re an original—someone who routinely “breaks the mold”–the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony can be a humbling experience. The event, held each year at Harvard University, celebrates weird science as you’ve never seen it before. That is unless you’ve attended an Ig Nobel ceremony or two. I’ve been to all 19 of them, and have seen some strange things over the years. Last night’s show was no exception. I came out reeling, as I do every year, struck by the realization that I’m actually pretty ordinary. The “wild and crazy” ideas that I come up with wouldn’t even rate a footnote next to the accomplishments of the true Ig Nobel laureate. When I’m done recounting what went on last night, you’ll know just what I mean.

Thursday, October 1, 7:27 pm I arrive in Sanders Theatre to a packed house, rife with anticipation. The house is so packed and so rife, in fact, that I have to ask a rather hefty woman to slide over so that I can squeeze into my assigned seat on the bench.

The natives are becoming restless, as they say, and a chant—“Ig, Ig, Ig Nobel!”—begins to circulate through the hall, starting as a faint rumble and building to a din. It’s a traditional Ig rallying cry, according to legend, “attributed to the first person who chanted it.”

7:30 A safety monitor of some sort discusses the types of activities that will, and will not, be allowed onstage. Laparoscopic surgery is one of the banned activities, as is a proposed sledgehammer toss from the balcony. But waterboarding is considered permissible. Sword swallowing is also on the “approved” list, and I sense some foreshadowing here.

7:36 The master of ceremonies Marc Abrahams, dressed in tux and top hat, takes the stage explaining that “tonight we’re going to honor achievements that first make people laugh and then make them think.” That’s been the party line for the past several years when they stopped using words like “psychotic” and “mind-numbingly stupid” to describe the things people were about to see and hear.

Abrahams, the editor of THE ANNALS OF IMPROBABLE RESEARCH, introduces the eight genuine Nobel laureates participating in the proceedings, noting that a couple of others may surface later. (Two, in fact, do surface later, although one of those is merely an image projected on a slide.) He also introduces some Ig Nobel winners from previous years including a scholar who investigated the effectiveness of Coca-Cola as a spermicide and another brave pioneer who successfully cured hiccups through digital rectal massage. Upon hearing about this technique, the crowd suddenly grows quiet.

7:47 Dan Meyer, a former Ig Nobel winner, swallows a long sword onstage, which is removed by two Nobel laureates. Which brings to mind the old gag: “How many laureates does it take to remove a sword from an esophagus?” I suspected that we would get an answer before the night was done.

7:59 Benoit Mandelbrot, the inventor of fractals, delivers the keynote address on “Risk” in financial markets, which is a topic he’s written about before. It’s also the theme for this year’s festivities. The speech is supposed to last 60 seconds, but it appears that Mandelbrot does not have enough material to fill even that brief interval. He stalls and is eventually rescued by “Miss Sweetie Poo,” an 8-year-old girl who’s charged with moving
the show along by letting speakers know when she’s bored. She’s not at all subtle, droning on and on—as 8-year-olds are wont to do—about how bored she is. The kid is effective, but her act can get tiresome.

8:04 The first part of a never-before-seen opera, THE BIG BANK, is presented. The title of the act, “Two bankers meet in a bar…,” sounds like the start of a bad joke. But the singers can belt it out. And the lyrics aren’t half bad either: “I love meeting people I’ve just met, especially if they know how to leverage debt…”

8:15 “Let’s get it over with,” Abrahams says, announcing the announcement of the Ig Nobel Prizes. Ten are to be given out in all. One for each finger. That is if thumbs are fingers—a point I hope we clarify later.

8:18 The Veterinary Medicine Prize goes to Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson from Newcastle University, who discovered that cows that are given names by their keepers produce more milk than cows that are nameless. “There are many I’d like to thank,” says Rowlinson, upon accepting the award. “Some humans, but mostly cows. Thank you Bluebell, Buttercup, and Daisy. I could go on with lots of cow names that are very popular.” But fortunately, he does not, as Miss Sweetie Poo puts a stop to that one, but good.

8:26 Five from the University of Bern get the Peace Prize for conducting experiments that answer the question: Is it better to get hit over the head with a full bottle of beer or an empty one? The answer turns out to be a full bottle of beer, perhaps because you might get to sip some of it afterwards? Speaking above the laughter, one of the Bern scholars tell us that this is an important legal matter that frequently comes up in the courtroom. Not that Miss Sweetie Poo cared. She had begun her irrevocable death march, and the Peace winners were soon to become history.

8:34 The Chemistry Prize went to a trio from the National Autonomous University of Mexico who made diamonds (or at least diamond film) from a liquid. That has been done many times before without anybody winning an Ig Nobel Prize. But, of course, no one thought of making diamonds with tequila—a conceptual that put these three into the winner’s circle. Javier Morales revealed the key to their success: “If you drink a lot of tequila, you will see anything you want.”

8:41 Donald Unger, an 83-year-old allergist from California, wins the Medical Prize for showing that—contrary to what his mother, several aunts, and (later) his mother-in-law told him—cracking knuckles does not lead to arthritis of the fingers. At least in the case of his one experimental subject, himself. For 60-plus years, Unger cracked the knuckles in his left hand at least twice a day, while leaving his right knuckles alone. Neither hand ever developed arthritis.

Unger appreciated the acclaim he was now receiving, figuring he probably deserved some sort of award after 60 years of knuckle cracking. “Now the only thing left for me is to decide what I want on my tombstone,” he tells the crowd. Apparently, he’s already decided: “Here lies Don Unger, who has finally quit cracking his knuckles.”

8:50 Act 3 of THE BIG BANK. “The big banks took their revenue and shot it into the sky,” the singer croons. “What could be stupider? Sending money to Jupiter?”

8:58 Elena Bodner of the University of Chicago walks off with the Public Health Prize for designing a bra that can double as a pair of emergency face masks. “Isn’t it wonderful that women have two breasts and not just one?” she asks. “That means we can save not only ourselves but the man of our choice.” The device takes only 25 seconds for the average woman to use, she explains. “Five seconds to unlock and apply, and 20 seconds to decide who the lucky man will be.” To demonstrate, she slips off her bra, detaches it, and places masks on two Nobel laureates, Wolfgang Ketterle and Paul Krugman. She slips off a second bra, which she drapes around her mouth and that of another laureate, Orhan Pamuk.

Of course, Nobel laureates who participate in the Igs are used to such indignities. A few minutes later, another laureate, Martin Chalfie, serves as the booby prize in a Win-a-Date contest. Here’s how this illustrious man of science is described to the audience: “A folk guitarist who enjoys playing with worms and singing Swedish drinking songs while hopping like a frog.” Too bad the guy wasn’t just draped with a bra.

9:03 The sword swallower is back on stage. They’re going after a “world record,” with nine Nobel laureates retrieving the sword from his mouth. Although the feat proceeds without complication, I wonder whether this was one record that would have been best left unset.

9:12 Fumiaki Taguchi of Kitasato University gets the Biology Prize for showing how kitchen refuse can be reduced more than 90 percent when exposed to bacteria extracted from the feces of giant pandas. Taguchi begins to extol the virtues of panda feces, particularly its lack of smell, when young Miss Sweetie Poo decides enough is enough. And in this case she was right.

9:21 After the photo opps and farewell speeches, the crowd begins filing out of the auditorium. On my way to the exit, I dodge Francis Fessmire, the returning Ig winner (of digital rectal massage fame) who’s passing out anti-hiccup kits to any and all takers. I want no part of this, and keep walking without looking back.

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