Campus & Community

Singing along with the Ig Nobels

4 min read

Wacky science prizes honor karaoke inventor; nudist research

The 2004 Ig Nobel Prizes went off in traditionally wacky fashion Thursday night (Sept. 30), honoring unusual science and questionable social advances and taking a poke at Coke for adding its own pollution to bottled river water.

The ceremony took place in Harvard’s Sanders Theatre before a crowd of about 1,200, who were treated to the annual fare of farcical operas, paper airplanes, and impossibly short lectures – first 24 seconds and then seven words – on serious science.

The Ig Nobels offer a humorous counterpoint to the actual Nobel Prizes, awarded in early October. Ten prizes were awarded at the ceremony for research touching on topics ranging from fish flatulence to hula hooping to patenting a way of combing your hair to hide a bald spot.

The ceremony was sponsored by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research, the Harvard Computer Society, the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association, and the Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students.

Ig Nobel organizer Marc Abrahams, Annals of Improbable Research editor and the show’s master of ceremonies, was joined in the night’s hijinks by several actual Nobel laureates, including Frank B. Baird Jr. Research Professor of Science Dudley Herschbach, who won a Nobel in chemistry in 1986, Abbott and James Lawrence Professor of Chemistry Emeritus William Lipscomb Jr., who won the chemistry prize a decade earlier, and Richard Roberts, who won the Physiology or Medicine prize in 1993.

The theme to this year’s Ig Nobel Prize ceremony was “diet,” reflected in the night’s annual science-related opera: “The Atkins Diet Opera.”

Of course, the stars of the evening, despite the drama surrounding them, were the winners. The categories and winners for this year’s Ig Nobel Prizes were:

Medicine: Steven Stack of Wayne State University and James Gundlach of Auburn University for their report “The Effect of Country Music on Suicide.”

Physics: Ramesh Balasubramaniam of the University of Ottawa, and Michael Turvey of the University of Connecticut and Yale University, for exploring and explaining the dynamics of hula hooping.

Public Health: Jillian Clarke of the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences and Howard University for investigating the scientific validity of the “Five-Second Rule” about whether it’s safe to eat food that’s been dropped on the floor.

Chemistry: The Coca-Cola Co. of Great Britain, for using advanced technology to convert liquid from the River Thames into Dasani, which for precautionary reasons has been made unavailable to consumers.

Engineering: Donald J. Smith and his father, the late Frank J. Smith, of Orlando, Fla., for patenting the combover.

Literature: The American Nudist Research Library of Kissimmee, Fla., for preserving nudist history so that everyone can see it.

Psychology: Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and Christopher Chabris of Harvard University, for demonstrating that when people pay close attention to something, it’s all too easy to overlook anything else – even a man in a gorilla suit.

Economics: The Vatican, for outsourcing prayers to India.

Peace: Daisuke Inoue of Hyogo, Japan, for inventing karaoke, thereby providing an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other.

Biology: Ben Wilson of the University of British Columbia, Lawrence Dill of Simon Fraser University, Robert Batty of the Scottish Association for Marine Science, Magnus Whalberg of the University of Aarhus, and Hakan Westerberg of Sweden’s National Board of Fisheries, for showing that herrings apparently communicate by farting.

Thursday’s ceremony was followed by the Ig Informal Lectures, held Saturday (Oct. 2) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where winners had another chance to explain their research and why they undertook it. The lectures, open to the public, featured refreshments including the world’s most expensive coffee, Luak coffee. Luak coffee, which won the 1995 Ig Nobel for Nutrition, is made from coffee beans ingested and excreted by the luak, a small catlike animal from Indonesia.