And Now for a Moment of Science: Great Moments in the Ig Nobels
Tonight, the 25th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony comes to Sanders Theatre. The event marks an occasion for the Cambridge-based Annals of Improbable Research (often referred to as “the Mad Magazine of Science”) to recognize particularly sterling exemplars of, well, “improbable research”—or, in their words: “Research that makes people laugh and then think.”
Every year, AIR scours the globe in search of these delightfully bizarre dispatches from academia, and dig up everything from homosexual necrophiliac ducks to using pork to cure nosebleeds. And the awards ceremony itself is about as exuberantly madcap and deeply nerdy as you might expect—and you can even see it for yourself on their extensive online video archives. (In fact, the Ig Nobels were one of the first events to ever be webcast live.)
Their 25th anniversary show is shaping up to be a doozy, featuring cameo appearances galore—including one by Dr. Yoshiro Nakamats, the prolific 87-year-old inventor (he claims to have produced a whopping 3,357 inventions) whose work is a favorite subject of the AIR. His contribution to tonight’s show will be characteristically astonishing: Ig Nobel organizers tell us that “Dr. Nakamats has been diagnosed with a fatal form of cancer; he has written a special song about that, which he will perform at the ceremony.”
But who will take home the coveted Ig Nobel awards this year? The 10 winners will remain top secret until tonight’s awards ceremony—so you’ll have to either attend the event or watch the live webcast to find out.
In the meantime, let’s relive some of our favorite Ig Nobel moments—the-square-root-of-25 favorite moments, to be exact.
The Ig Nobels Premiere Mini-Opera About the Terrifying Birth-O-Matic
Mixing music and science has always been a big part of the Ig Nobels—just look at William Lipscomb performing “The Interpretive Dance of the Electrons” back in the early ’90s. Every ceremony includes a mini-opera, whose subjects have ranged from bank bailouts to brain food, and even the nano-opera “Atom and Eve.” Though every opera is over-the-top in its own special way, you’d be hard-pressed to find subject matter more mind-boggling than that of 2013’s “The Blonsky Device,” dedicated to the Blonsky device, history’s most bizarre obstetric device, which you can see here.
“Be glad your obstetrician doesn’t own the Blonsky device, a birthing machine that spins a pregnant woman at high speed, using centrifugal force to eject her newborn into a net,” a baffled Boston magazine wrote that year. “The U.S. government awarded a patent for the contraption in 1965, but for some reason, it never caught on.” The Blonsky device first came to the attention of the AIR in in 1999, when the late George and Charlotte Blonsky won an Ig Nobel in the “Managed Health Care” category.
This year’s mini-opera, “The Best Life,” may not have the same fright factor, but it’s certainly ambitious: this Darwinist piece centers on “a competition to choose the best species of life.”
Amanda Palmer Sings About Bacteria
This particular trip down memory lane goes back to 2010, a year when iPads first roamed the earth, double rainbows blew up the Internet, and Amanda Palmer and fellow performer Jason Webley decided to become Evelyn Evelyn: conjoined twin sisters who played the accordion and toured the world singing songs about elephants. And that fall, the already-surreal double act decided to up the ante by performing a bespoke song about germs (they manage to rhyme “bacteria” with “extremely malignant pathogen from Siberia”) while Neil Gaiman joined them onstage.
You can see the entire 2010 ceremony in the video above; the Evelyn Evelyn performance begins at the 24-minute mark.
Miss Sweetie Poo Goes to College
This is not so much a moment as a milestone. For background: Miss Sweetie Poo is the cute little eight-year-old girl that is the Ig Nobels’ secret weapon to prevent their esteemed Ignitaries from droning on and on. When a presenter exceeds their allotted time limit, Miss Sweetie Poo marches up to the podium and whines “I’M BORED, PLEASE STOP” incessantly, cowing the mic hog into submission. At this point, the “omnipotent” Miss Sweetie Poo’s been around long enough that MSP 1.0—Natasha Rosenberg, the first person to take on the role—grew up and went to college.
Boston Researcher Wins the Chemistry Prize for Coca-Cola Spermicide Study
Coke has been rumored to have spermicidal powers since at least the early ‘50s—lore memorialized in the 1960s by the Fugs’ “Coca-Cola Douche.” But does it work? In 1985, Deborah J. Anderson—then a researcher at the Harvard Medical School Laboratory for Human Reproduction and Reproductive Biology—aimed to find out. After all, “it comes with its own shake-and-shoot applicator,” she says. In a study destined to attract the attention of the AIR, Anderson’s team did an experiment in the lab and found that sperm, after spending one minute drenched in Coke, have “zero percent motility.” In other words, it is in fact a spermicide. But she’s also quick to point out that sperm “can make it into the cervical canal, out of reach of any douching solution, in seconds,” before you can even pry the cap off that Coke bottle.
Don Featherstone, Inventor of the Pink Flamingo, Wins a Ig Nobel Prize for Art
In the same year that the enduring symbol of cheerful mid-century tackiness—the pink flamingo—turned 39, its creator was recognized by the Ig Nobels for his “ornamentally evolutionary invention.” But it turns out that Fitchburg’s Don Featherstone, the Worcester Art Museum school graduate turned plastic fabricator and industrial designer, would boast eye-catching plumage to rival his birds’: During one of their many subsequent Ig Nobel appearances, he and his wife strolled onstage in coordinated outer-space garments. Which was not particularly unusual, as they wore creatively tailored matching outfits every single day of their marriage.
When Featherstone passed away earlier this year, the AIR mourned him: “Don and his wife, Nancy Featherstone, came to almost every Ig Nobel Prize ceremony in succeeding years, where adoring throngs cheered them and the plastic pink flamingos.” This year’s ceremony will pay tribute to Featherstone with a glowing flamingo onstage.
Ig Nobel Prize ceremony: September 17, 6 p.m., Sanders Theatre, 45 Quincy St, Cambridge, Cambridge. The Ig Informal Lectures: Free, September 19, 1 p.m., Building 10, Room 250 at MIT, Cambridge. For more info and live webcast, see improbable.com.