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Katherine Meusey

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Ig Nobel Prizes: Think First, Then Laugh

Posted: 10/04/11 12:38 PM ET

Male Buprestid beetles need glasses. That, or a more comprehensive Sex Education program. You see, they have trouble differentiating between members of their fairer sex and a short beer bottle known as a stubby. The stubby's enticing dimpled bottom, glistening in the sun, resembles the most desirous of Buprestid females, the "Super Queen." Males often bypass Buprestid females entirely in order to ride the stubby train, which results in fewer Buprestid babies. But stubbies are more Siren than Sex Toy; most of the beetles who submit to her shiny charms end up baking in the hot Australian sun or being eaten by jealous ants. Don't believe me? Just ask Professors Darryl Gwynne and David Rentz, whose study snared the Ig Nobel Prize (also known as "Ig" or "Igs") in Biology on Thursday night.

Now in its 21st year, the Ig Nobel Prizes celebrate research that makes you "first laugh, and then think." I first heard about the ceremony when I was doing research for a book called Eccentric America. The event sounded interesting but was probably over my head, as I am not a science-y girl. Scientific research to me meant smug people who knew more than I did. I assumed the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony was more of the same, despite the hype. I couldn't have been more wrong.

When I moved to Boston in 2008, coincidence led me into the Ig fold. A woman I'd known in college was married to Marc Abrahams, Improbable Research's founder, Ig Nobel emcee and chief cheerleader. The improbable research he collects with the help of people who send him links and stories appear on their blog and in their magazine, The Annals of Improbable Research. Some even find their way into Marc's Guardian column. Many of the best are awarded an Ig.

When I volunteered to help with the ceremony I was amazed by the variety of people who came to see the show. At the theatre entrance you are just as likely to see a college student flashing devil horns at you, smiling excitedly and mouthing "Igs," as you are a bevy of top Ivy League educators. The public glee surrounding the ceremony is infectious. They cheer and applaud like they're courtside at the Final Four or cheering their favorite team at the Super Bowl. In a way, they are. The Super Bowl of science.

Winning an Ig Nobel Prize is optional. You don't get an Ig, you are given the opportunity to accept one. People have turned down the Prize, but not many. In a lot of scientific circles, winning an Ig Nobel Prize is almost as good as the real thing (there are, in fact, a few who have both). Winners travel to Cambridge, Mass., from all over the world on their own dime to accept their Prize in person, often with members of the press in their home countries in hot pursuit.

The more than 100 volunteers are what make the Igs come alive. A disparate group of volunteers including students, academics, ice cream magnates, etiquette columnists, singers and techies come together once a year bringing with them passionate dedication, creativity, and imagination. You never know what delights await you: I've seen Ig Nobel Prize winners dancing and wearing bras on their faces, human paper airplane targets, and human spotlights who cover their bodies in silver makeup and brandish flashlights. Bemused Nobel Prize winners like Dudley Herschbach and writer Orhan Pamuk have presented the awards, often joining in the onstage revelry.

The "thinking" part of the Ig is what got me hooked. The subjects in themselves sound funny, but there's a real depth behind them. The Buprestid research talks to the potentially disastrous impact on the species caused by an accident of bottle design. Dr. Elena Bodnar won the Public Health prize for her "Emergency Bra" in 2009. It's a normal-looking bra that can be converted into two face masks. While it sounds like a joke, Dr. Bodnar explains that its origins spring from her experience as a recent University graduate and medical student who helped move families away from contaminated areas after the Chernobyl disaster. She realized then that if there were a readily available face mask, fewer survivors would have been damaged by airborne radiation.

The Igs are becoming better known every day. This year we had our own YouTube channel and were streamed across the world on sites like the Guardian, BoingBoing, MSNBC, ABC (Australia), Wetenschap24 (Netherlands), UOL (Brazil) and, of course, the Huffington Post. The Japanese state broadcaster NHK opened their 9 o'clock news with a story about the Japanese winner, who created a smoke alarm releasing a strong Wasabi scent into the air that could save the lives of the deaf or others who can't hear a traditional smoke alarm.

Mark Twain said that "Laughter is the best weapon we have, and we as humans, use it the least." In a world where science is often regarded as dry and humorless, the Ig Nobel Prizes are helping to break that mold.