Small Talk with Scientists: The Ig Nobel Prize Winners Unwind

Here’s what it’s like to party with researchers whose work might first make you laugh, then make you think.

The 2013 Ig Nobel Prize. Photo by Eric Workman
The 2013 Ig Nobel Prize. Photo by Eric Workman

Perched near a long table full of crudité and tiny brownies at a Boston-area house party this past Saturday, South African entomologist Marcus Byrne is waxing poetic about dung beetles. “Dung is the opera of their life,” he says with authority.

Byrne and colleagues just won the 2013 Ig Nobel Prize in Biology and Astronomy for the recent study, “Dung Beetles Use the Milky Way for Orientation,” in which the researchers determined that “dung beetles transport their dung balls along straight paths under a starlit sky but lose this ability under overcast conditions.” (SciFri covered the research in this episode.)

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Annual Prizes Honor the Stranger Side of Science

The Ig Nobel Prizes, a loose spoof of the Nobel Prizes, honor 10 unusual scientific achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think,” says Marc Abrahams, editor of The Annals of Improbable Research. The staff of the science humor magazine has administered the prizes every fall since 1991.

Traditionally, after a campy, typically sold-out ceremony at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre and a lecture series at MIT, the participants attend an informal soirée a few nights later at the brownstone home of Jackie Baum (a former anthropologist) and Stanley Eigen (a math professor), friends of Abrahams’ who have been involved with the prizes since their inception. It’s a chance to relax and mingle with other people who understand what it’s like when people giggle at their life’s work.

The requisite small-talk name-dropping bests that of most cocktail parties. Overheard conversation snippets at this year’s party include, “I don’t know if you remember him, but he studied penguin poo under pressure,” and “Oh, right, she played Star Wars movies to locusts.”

“If Art Linkletter were still alive, I’d suggest he host a show called Academics Say the Darndest Things,” says Gus Rancatore, co-founder of Toscanini’s, a Cambridge, Mass., ice cream shop that often doubles as a study space for MIT students. A frequent attendee of this annual party, Rancatore got involved with the “Igs” six years ago, when Abrahams commissioned him to create an ice cream flavor in honor of Maya Yamamoto. She won the 2007 Ig Nobel Chemistry Prize for discovering how to extract vanilla flavoring out of cow dung.

The Ig Nobel committee seems to like dung research. Abrahams perks up at the party when Eric Warrant mentions a colleague who studies the shape of wombat scat. “Wombats do cubical poos,” explains Warrant, a professor at Lund University in Lund, Sweden, who participated in the dung beetle study. Then he qualifies his statement, in the exacting way of scientists: “Well, when you see these poos, they’re not sharp-edged. The edges are rounded, slightly. But still, the poos are cubical.” (For a visual, watch this clip.)

In keeping with the scatological theme, the 2013 Archaeology Prize went to Brian Crandall and Peter Stahl for a 1995 study that involved asking a grown man to swallow a parboiled shrew, then examining the excreted content for the next three days. The goal was to find out which bones would survive the human digestive system intact. A good 20 percent made it through, including a mandible and part of the palate.

“People always want to know who ate the shrew,” party attendee Crandall says at one of the lectures. “But some credit really should be given to the guy who sifted through the poop. That was me.” (He’s now co-owner of Mad Science of the Mid-Hudson, an organization that runs science education programs for elementary school kids.)

This is not to say that the prize committee skews lowbrow. For instance, this year the Ig Nobel Medicine Prize went to a team of researchers who showed that mice lived longer after undergoing heart transplants if they listened to the Verdi opera La Traviata than if they listened to music by the Irish New Age musician Enya. (Their study was published in the Journal of Cardiothoracic Surgery.)

One of the authors, Xiangyuan Jin, arrives at the party donning a formal business suit and fuzzy mouse ears, which he pockets later in the evening. Asked why Verdi’s was chosen over another opera, Jin explains, “My boss likes La Traviata.” As if on cue, lead author Masateru Uchiyama breaks into song across the room.

At the prize ceremony this year, each winning team received an ironic trophy (a hammer encased under glass; see picture above) and a cash prize (a 100-trillion Zimbabwean dollar bill). At the house party, they receive an additional prize: a bottle of craft beer carefully chosen to reflect the nature of the research. Jin’s team, for instance, gets a bottle of Field Mouse’s Farewell (Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project). A bottle of Blue Moon (Blue Moon Brewing Co.) goes to the Physics Prize winners, honored for their 2012 paper, “Humans Running in Place on Water at Simulated Reduced Gravity.” In short, the team showed that if there were ponds on the moon, some people would be able to run across them.

“A couple of journalists made the mistake of saying the study was about walking across a pond,” says lead author Alberto Minetti, a physiology professor at the University of Milan. “The study was about running. Walking across a pond is impossible.”

Still, the winners all seem pleasantly surprised by the onslaught of media attention in the wake of the ceremony. “It shows how much people appreciate good science,” Byrne says. “It doesn’t have to make money. It doesn’t have to save lives. It’s just part of the human condition to be curious.”

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Carmen Nobel is a writer and editor based in Watertown, Massachusetts.

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