Some people gather at a friend’s house to watch the hockey game. Others host Oscar parties. But the group of friends that gathered in my apartment last night were there to share a group viewing experience of an altogether more original kind: to cheer on Canada at the 21st Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremonies. We were not disappointed: among the ten winners were two Canadian scientists investigating, respectively, how temporarily blinding someone can impair their driving ability, and how a certain species of Australian beetle seems to prefer mating with beer bottles.
The Ig Nobel prizes are the brainchild of Mark Abrahams, a mathematician and science writer who is the editor and co-founder of the Annals of Improbable Research. He shines his ever-growing spotlight on research that makes people laugh, then think. Anyone who’s ever combed through the scientific literature knows that there is plenty of this stuff out there: honest, well-intentioned studies designed to tackle, with scientific discipline and rigour, questions that the general public too often and too quickly will dismiss as absurd. Because of these hard-working pioneers, we now know that naming your cow will indeed cause it to produce more milk, that swearing actually does reduce your perception of pain, and that Coca-Cola is not, contrary to popular belief, an effective spermicide. And if research like that doesn’t deserve some kind of prize, I seriously don’t know what does.
The ceremony is held at Harvard each year the week before the Nobel prizes are awarded, and many Nobel laureates attend. Tickets are almost impossible to get, but there is a live webcast. Having missed watching it live for the last 20 years (I was either unaware or otherwise occupied) I resolved to make this something of an event. A half-dozen true heroes crammed into my living room, and were served wine, various light snacks, and more wine. I was surprised at first by the high quality and lack of streaming problems with the webcast, until someone pointed out that it’s entirely possible we were one of only a dozen or so Ig Nobel parties happening globally at the time, and thus ran no risk of running out of bandwidth.
About the ceremony itself: I can only say that it exceeded my expectations on all fronts. There were speeches, science demonstrations, ridiculous costumes, paper airplanes, musical entertainment, and some really solid research. At times it was a little cheesy, and some of the technical production was a bit uneven, but that only made me like it more. It showed that this is not a piss-take, spoof, or sendup by people who want to mock or tear down the scientific community. Rather, it is a reminder that scientists are people too, and are willing, perhaps even eager, to laugh at themselves.
If you missed it, the entire two-hour ceremony is available here, and you can see a list of the winners here. However, I would like to highlight the two Canadian connections in last night’s ceremony, as well as my personal favourite, this year’s Ig Nobel Peace Prize.
Darryl Gwynne is a professor in the department of biology at the University of Toronto at Misssissauga. He’s interested in how male investment in reproduction (particularly mate-feeding) controls the operation of sexual selection and the evolution of sexual differences among insects. A few decades ago, he and a few buddies were driving down a road in Australia when they noticed that beetles of a certain variety seemed to be trying mate with “stubbies,” beer bottles that had been casually tossed out the window by truck drivers. Their paper, “Beetles on the Bottle: Male Buprestids Mistake Stubbies for Females (Coleoptera),” was published in the Journal of the Australian Entomological Society in 1983. Along with colleague David Rentz, he won the 2011 Ig Nobel Prize in Biology.
John Senders is Professor Emeritus of the Department of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering at the University of Toronto. In the 1960s, he conducted a series of experiments in which a person drives an automobile on a major highway while a visor repeatedly flaps down over his face, blinding him. The idea was to measure how much distraction one could take before it began to impair one’s driving ability, clearly an important topic in the modern age of text-enabled mobile phones. Senders was awarded the 2011 Ig Nobel Prize in Public Safety. The research is published in 1967 in something called the Highway Research Record, which I was unable to easily find online. Luckily, the organizers provided an illustrative video, which is shown below:
And finally, I could not let the opportunity pass without mentioning my favourite of this year’s ceremony, the Ig Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to Arturas Zuokas, mayor of the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. This man has completely had it with owners of luxury cars parking them illegally in bike lanes on Vilnius’ crowded streets, and he’s taken matters into his own hands. Has he gone too far? You be the judge: