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Anna H. '14

Sep 15, 2013

The 2013 Ig Nobel Prize Lectures

Posted in: Best of the Blogs, Life & Culture

In 1965, the U.S. government awarded George (MIT Class of ~1923) and Charlotte Blonsky a patent:

In case reading the crumbly Times New Roman is a struggle: their patent was for an "Apparatus for facilitating the birth of a child by centrifugal force."

You are familiar with the centrifugal force. It's the force that makes you slam your head into the car window when you turn a corner sharply, and makes the seats in this ride swing outward. In general, if you ride around in a circle, you feel the centrifugal (fictitious) force yanking you outwards.

So, the idea behind this apparatus is that if you spin a mother around in a circle with her head at the center, the baby will come flying out, to be caught in a net.

The obvious question now is: was a baby ever delivered using this apparatus? For better or for worse, no one seems to know.

32 years after Mr. and Mrs. Blonsky got their patent, they were (post-humously) awarded an Ig Nobel Prize, alongside such distinguished visionaries as Steve Penfold of York University in Toronto ("The social life of donuts: Commodity and community in postwar Canada") The Kansas and Colorado State Boards of Education ("for mandating that children should not believe in Darwin's theory of evolution any more than they believe in Newton's theory of gravitation, Faraday's and Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism, or Pasteur's theory that germs cause disease") and Takeshi Makino of the Safety Detective Agency in Osaka ("for his involvement with S-Check, an infidelity detection spray that wives can apply to their husbands' underwear.")

You get the idea. If you don't, here's the description of what the Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded for: "achievements that first make people LAUGH, and then make them THINK." Here's the official website, and here's the Wikipedia page. 

This year, the Ig Nobel Prize official ceremony was held here in Cambridge - and, on Saturday September 14, all of the award recipients gave five-minute lectures (followed by a Q&A session) at MIT, in 26-100 (I sit through biology lecture in 26-100, three times a week!) 

It was impossible to pass up, so I went along, and brought my little sister. She was excited to be there!

In the opening moments, Marc Abrahams (the man behind the whole Ig Nobel thing) asked for a volunteer who had a watch.

I had a watch. My hand shot up first. (In my boyfriend's words: "Classic Anna.") Marc Abrahams' eyes settled on me, and I got to take a seat on stage. Next, he asked for people who could make loud noises: one guy made a clicking sound with his tongue, and another woman pulled out her ukelele (unclear why she had it with her...this will remain one of life's mysteries.) We made a good team:

(Photo Credit to John Carr)

I introduced myself to the other two, and found out that the man lives in Italy (I think it was Italy?) and the woman lives in the Netherlands: both are in Boston, traveling. 

Our mission: to let the speakers know every time a minute passed, and to really let them know once their five minutes were up. Every minute, I cued the other two, who responded by making their noises:

Another mission not mentioned in the job description: entertain the audience whenever a lecture is interrupted by technical difficulties. Fortunately, my new Dutch friend is a fabulous singer, and my Italian friend is a fabulous dancer. I can't sing, or dance. So, my contribution was to wave my hands in the air. Some of the Ig Nobel Prize recipients jumped out of their front row seats to help us out, and the results were pretty spectacular:

Good times.

Now, to the content: there were seven lectures (ten prizes were awarded, but one post-humously, and two to groups who couldn't make it*, **.) 

*The president of Belarus for "making it illegal to applaud in public" and the Belarus State Police for "arresting a one-armed man for applauding"

** A group from Thailand for "the medical techniques described in their report 'Surgical Management of Penile Amputations in Siam'...techniques which they recommend, except in cases where the amputated penis has been partially eaten by a duck" 

In no particular order:

1. The Ig Nobel Prize for Biology and Astronomy (not usually dished out as a joint prize) was awarded for "discovering that when dung beetles get lost, they can navigate their way home by looking at the Milky Way.

2. The Ig Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded for "discovering that some people would be physically capable of running across the surface of a pond -- if those people and that pond were on the moon." 

3. The Ig Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded for "assessing the effect of listening to opera, on heart transplant patients who are mice."

Here's the crew:

4. The Ig Nobel Prize for Archaeology was awarded for "parboiling a dead shrew, and then swallowing the shrew without chewing, and then carefully examining everything excreted during subsequent days -- all so they could see which bones would dissolve inside the human digestive system, and which bones would not."

Unsurprisingly, the representative was wearing a lab coat. Turns out that he owns a cool company, and has an adorable daughter who jumped up and helped him hand out shrew-shaped lollipops. 

5. The Ig Nobel Prize for Probability was awarded for "making two related discoveries: First, that the longer a cow has been lying down, the more likely that cow will soon stand up; and Second, that once a cow stands up, you cannot easily predict how soon that cow will lie down again."

Excerpts:

6. The Ig Nobel Prize for Psychology was awarded for "confirming, by experiment, that people who think they are drunk also think they are attractive."

7. The Ig Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded for "discovering that the biochemical process by which onions make people cry is even more complicated than scientists previously realized." 

They got a bunch of volunteers to come on stage, and made them cry:

-

The Blonsky couple was also honored; the opera written about their invention was shown in between talks. It was very, very strange:

At the end of the ceremony, I got to stand up and take a bow - and was awarded a book for my troubles. So, now I can officially say that I have been awarded a prize at an Ig Nobel ceremony :)

(Also, the rest of John Carr's photos of the event are here, on flickr.)

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