Ig Nobel awards to honor uproarious science

Nobel Prize laureates will commend scientists on the papers that are not frontrunners for the real Nobel Prize at a ceremony Thursday night at Harvard.

Adam Hunger/Reuters
In 2010, Elena Bodnar demonstrates a face mask that was awarded a 2009 Ig Nobel prize. Dr. Bodnar designed and patented a bra that can be quickly converted into a pair of gas masks, one for the brassiere wearer and one to a bystander, won the 2009 Ig Nobel Public Health Prize. REUTERS/Adam Hunger

The Improbable Research Nobel Prize Award ceremony is tonight.

That’s right: tonight, on the same evening that NASA scientists will celebrate Voyager 1’s historic exit from the solar system, Nobel Prize laureates will commend scientists on the papers that, well, are not frontrunners for the real Nobel Prize – but still have something valuable to teach the audience.

Tonight’s award ceremony, known as the Ig Nobel Awards, has been put on since 1991 at Harvard. The ceremony will include “genuinely bemused genuine Nobel laureates” bestowing awards on scientists whose projects “make people laugh, then make them think,” as the organizers, the Annals of Improbable Research, put it.

It will also include an opera performance.

The identities of the ten winners are kept absolutely clandestine until the announcement this evening, the organization says.

But, based on last year’s prize winners, audience members can expect to laugh – and then to think about why they are laughing.

The awards are meant to “raise the question: How do you decide what's important and what's not, and what's real and what's not — in science and everywhere else?,” write the organizers on their website. Why is a paper that solves the puzzle of how people’s hair turns green in some Swedish homes completely uproarious? Why is it so hilarious that scientists can now tell us that chimpanzees can identify other chimpanzees from photographs of their rear ends?

Last year, some scientists were awarded for their serious and scientific probes into the most humble of subjects, including: “the balance of forces that shape and move the hair in a human ponytail” and “the dynamics of liquid-sloshing, to learn what happens when a person walks while carrying a cup of coffee.”

Other winning papers offered solutions to things that do not seem likely to happen, like how to stop a colonoscopy patient from exploding, explaining things that did not seem to need explaining, like how leaning to the left makes the Eiffel Tower look smaller, and invented things that did not seem to need inventing, like a machine that repeats people’s words to them at a slight delay.

Some papers were complimented on highlighting the banality of other scientists’ papers, like one that showed how complicated scientific instruments and statistics could come up with brain activity in a dead salmon.

Somewhat mysteriously, the committee also awarded the “The US Government General Accountability Office, for issuing a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports.”

The US government did not send a representative to collect that award.

The awards, beginning at 6:00 at Harvard, will be live broadcast on the organization’s website at 5:35 pm (EST). The winners will then succinctly explain their projects at a 1:00 pm talk on Saturday at MIT.

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