The swallowing of the shrew

Ig Nobel Prize ceremony awards improbable research

How far would you go in the name of science? Last night, 10 new Ig Nobel Prizes were awarded to scientists who had succeeded in publishing “improbable” research at the 23rd First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony.

The event, which took place in Sanders Theater at Harvard University, honored researchers whose works not only makes people laugh, but also made them think about their (however improbable) implications. Five “genuinely bemused” Nobel Laureates were on hand to give the Ig Nobel winners their prizes and a handshake.

The awards were presented in 10 categories — medicine, psychology, biology and astronomy (joint), physics, chemistry, archaeology, peace, probability, and public health. Winners came from five continents to attend the ceremony and accept their prizes, which included a sturdy plaque (a winner dropped his by accident during the ceremony), and $10 trillion Zimbabwean dollars.

This year’s archaeology winners went so far as to involve themselves in their research — Brian Crandall and Peter Stahl briefly boiled a dead shrew, swallowed it whole, and then meticulously analyzed everything they excreted in order to determine which bones would dissolve inside the human digestive system. Their resulting paper was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

“We will be recruiting outside,” Crandall joked during his speech.

Other Ig Nobel winners confirmed long-suspected beliefs, such as the group of French and American scientists who affirmed that people who are drunk think that they are more attractive. Their paper was entitled “Beauty is in the Eye of the Beer Holder.”

On the other hand, the winners of the joint prize in biology and astronomy demonstrated that dung beetles use the Milky Way to help find their way home when they get lost.

“South African beetles teach us that to do good science, you’ve got to have BALLS,” exclaimed one of the scientists at the end of her acceptance speech, before joining her colleagues in throwing large bouncy balls into the audience.

The ceremony’s facetiousness can be seen in its traditionally short opening and concluding remarks, which were composed entirely of the words “Welcome, Welcome,” and “Goodbye, Goodbye,” respectively.

This year’s ceremony also included the premiere of a mini-opera entitled “The Blonsky Device.” The show was inspired by the work of George and Charlotte Blonsky, who posthumously won the 1999 Ig Nobel Prize for their patent “Apparatus for Facilitating the Birth of a Child by Centrifugal Force” (US patent #3216423).

In the words of Marc Abrahams, the organizer of the annual Ig Nobel Prizes, “The method is simple: the pregnant woman is strapped on to a circular table; the table is then rotated at high speed.” (George Blonsky ’25 graduated with a degree in mining engineering from MIT.) The opera’s accompanying orchestra was composed exclusively of MIT and Harvard physicians and researchers.

The event also featured two paper airplane deluges, in which audience members threw paper airplanes that they had folded before the show onto the stage, and the traditional Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobel-Laureate Contest, which went to a spectator who was handed a special program.

Although each Ig Nobel winner was given only a minute to deliver an acceptance speech at the ceremony, they will have the opportunity to field questions and explain their work more in-depth at the annual Ig Informal Lectures. This year’s talks will take place on Saturday, Sept. 14 at 1 p.m. in 26-100. The event is free and open to everyone.